Sometimes, the best ideas are in rough drafts. When singling out music for a TV show, that can also apply to the songs.
One of the small-scale, self-contained heartbreaks of late-period “Better Call Saul” is watching the remaining remnants of humanity slip away from its title character. In Episode 11 of Season 6 (“Breaking Bad“), a particular sequence saw Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, in full Gene Takavic regalia) swindle a series of identity fraud targets over drinks at the bar. Behind these images are the sounds of the Monkees song “Tapioca Tundra,” an acoustic version that presented the kind of quintessential challenge that music supervisor Thomas Golubić has faced throughout his time working on both “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad.”
“That’s very much a Tom Schnauz bit of genius, which we’re always happy follow when those moments happen with him,” Golubić said. “Tom really loved the idea of using that song. He’d heard it live when Mike Nesmith had played that song live. We ended up finding it on a box set of a retrospective release. It was a pretty obscure find and surprisingly tricky to clear. Nobody had it in their records. Nobody knew where it was. Another big part of the strange job of music supervision is you have to find all the approval parties to clear every single thing. Sometimes there’s a weed dealer that nobody can find because he owns 2 percent of the damn song. Sometimes, there’s an estate that’s really insecure about the use or the context of the show. There’s so many factors to getting it right.”
In honor of “Better Call Saul” coming to a close, IndieWire spoke with Golubić about a memorable musical moment from each of the show’s six seasons.
Season 1, Episode 1 — “Uno“
The Ink Spots, “Address Unknown”
Unlike its Albuquerque predecessor, “Better Call Saul” didn’t have a pilot. Figuring out that opening season as a holistic whole meant introducing some ideas, not fully knowing how they would reverberate throughout the seasons to come. (Golubić likened it to “painting a train while it was moving.”) When approaching the first scene with Odenkirk as Gene, Golubić helped guide the team toward a sound that could harness some of that ambiguity.
“When we talked a little bit about structuring ‘What is the world of Gene Takavic like?’ there was a sense that there’s a little bit of a Podunk quality to it. This is a man who’s not living the flashy version of himself. There is a sense of a melancholy, but it’s also Jimmy is in there somewhere,” Golubić said. “That was a nice way of capturing something that also didn’t tell you too much. We weren’t commenting. The Ink Spots have a charm to their work, where it can live in any environment, any context.”
In some ways, having that scene drenched in the sound of a bygone era helps. As Golubić explained, the Ink Spots and the signature tone of singer Bill Kenny is about as far back as the show could have reached.
“They’re in that really interesting time period where it’s the beginning of the professionalization of recording. The recordings are quite good. They’re not as rough as they are if you get deeper into the ’30s or into the ’20s,” Golubić said.
The group had multiple songs featured in the Scorcese classic “Raging Bull,” but this appearance in “Uno” came before a second Ink Spots resurgence of sorts, with eventual placements in “Watchmen,” “Counterpart,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Supernatural,” and “The Tourist” among others. Regardless of the reason for the appeal, the Ink Spots were undeniable enough for the show to return to them for the Season 4 premiere.
“One of my favorite ones is the ‘We Three’ use. We pulled our hairs out, but we just loved the fact that it was, ‘We three: my echo, my shadow, and me.’ It’s Jimmy, Saul, and Gene. It just felt like it resonated,” Golubić said. “When we landed on it, it was one of those ideas I almost pulled out just because it seemed ridiculous to play them again. But it was the right answer. Sometimes we have to avoid editing ourselves too much by trying to avoid being too obvious.”
Season 2, Episode 7 — “Inflatable“
Dennis Coffey, “Scorpio”
As effective as “Better Call Saul” is at leaning into the mellow, patient songs for its quieter sequences, the show also thrived with its own brand of controlled chaos. Look no further than the example of “Scorpio,” paired with a kinetic collection of Jimmy (Odenkirk) doing his best to get himself fired from law firm Davis & Main. The Dennis Coffey instrumental has the perfect texture to match the rainbow-colored, split-screen extravaganza it’s soundtracking.
“The early days of ‘Better Call Saul,’ we were really presenting Jimmy in how he thought that he might be. We had this sense, like Dave Brubeck’s ‘Unsquare Dance.’ It’s a very sophisticated, confident, jazzy approach. But it’s not really who Saul Goodman is. And it’s not really who Jimmy McGill is either. He thinks he might be. The idea that we worked with was, ‘How do we cut away at that presentation?'” Golubić said. “You have a canvas of somebody who’s tremendously talented in the moment under pressure, and improvisational. When you have those abilities, to find music that has that extra flair, that has that level of ‘I don’t know what’s happening right now. But it’s really exciting,’ I think that’s a key part of the personality.”
There’s also a versatility to using a song like this, one that can work both on its own and under the action of an embarrassing conversation or dousing a co-worker in juice.
“To me, I want the tone of the music to do the thing first. And then if we’re able to value-add with vocals or with lyrics, then that’s a great thing. But I don’t ever start with that,” Golubić said. “Some of the worst ideas are the ones where they’re cerebral as opposed to ones which are emotional. If you’re too busy trying to decipher the poetry, you start to lose engagement with the sequence and it becomes a flashy moment that isn’t really necessarily substantive. The trick is, ‘How do you get the audience to feel it and understand it in a way that’s really visceral and compelling?'”
Season 3, Episode 1 — “Mabel“
BADBADNOTGOOD, “Can’t Leave the Night”
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
There’s no set workflow for editing a song into a particular scene. Some tracks are in the plan from the start, while others arrive later in the process. For the scene in the Season 3 premiere that finds Mike (Jonathan Banks) dismantling his car in search of a bug, Golubić brought this hypnotic, alt-jazz track as a possibility. Matching the song to picture required some subtle editing, but the modular nature of the song and some keen editing work helped it fit.
“That was one where we just kept looking at that scene until something really matched. We work with incredibly talented music editors. Jason Newman and his team are just tremendously talented. Jason always finds ways of making things seem invisible. You don’t know why an eight minute song became two and a half minutes, but it feels so satisfying. I want to make sure that the choices we present are ones that are exciting, but are also meaningful and have a real sense of attachment to the characters. The ability of the music editors to make them feel effortless makes it a group effort,” Golubić said.
At first listen, BADBADNOTGOOD doesn’t seem like a band that Mike would have in heavy rotation. But, given the demands of the scene, it also made for a nice sonic handshake with what composer Dave Porter has done throughout the show. Whatever lives in the fabric of Mike scenes, Golubić said that there’s one rule they’ve stuck to with him over the years.
“We never really have vocal tracks with Mike. There’s a danger to comment about him and his journey, because I think he does such a beautiful job of underplaying his emotions, and really finding a way to draw you into the soulfulness of that character, how he’s lost his soul and how he’s aware of his loss of his soul. Jonathan Banks just delivers so much that having lyrics on top of him doesn’t feel right,” Golubić said.
Season 4, Episode 7 — “Something Stupid”
Burl Ives, “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Like the first Gene scene, the biggest difference between “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” might be the extra time to use more of a given song.
“I bet if we did the math on what we kept in ‘Breaking Bad,’ they would all be like a minute, minute and a half. And ‘Better Call Saul,’ because it’s such a different show, it’s like four minutes. Four minutes of a song is a luxury you rarely have. But I think it’s sort of the magic of the show. It always rewards you because nothing is in there by accident,” Golubić said. “The fact that we get these long sequences, that we get a chance to carry them with music is really enjoyable. But we also do [that] with silence too. I’m never an advocate for music if I feel like it’s going to hurt the subtlety of what’s already there. Part of my job is to be able to advocate for silence and to advocate for not stepping on things.”
It would be very easy for a song like “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to feel cheeky or ironic, but there’s a blend of lightness and menace in this song, just as with the work these chummy engineers are doing. Even if Ives’ voice may have the familiar feel of breezy holiday cheer, little oddities in the song’s lyrics (“The bulldogs all have rubber teeth / And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs”) would be clues to outsiders that something isn’t quite right at this new superlab site.
“These guys are going into hell with a whistle. That’s the weird, tragic beauty of the whole making of the superlab,” Golubić said. “All of these gifted people, from Walter White to Gale Boetticher to Werner Ziegler to all of the German engineers, they’re doing brilliant, fantastic work. Gus Fring, Mike, and all of them are doing top-tier work, but it’s towards this incredibly illicit end result. I think there’s something very beautiful about that. If you can find a way to have the music inform that or at least always remind you that it’s there, it means that the ghosts don’t disappear, they just simply linger around a little bit.”
Season 5, Episode 3 — “The Guy for This“
Jodlerklub Bärgblüemli Schattdorf, “Jänzigrat-Jüz”
“Better Call Saul” is no stranger to the surreal. (Just watch those “Scorpio” tube man edits again.) Maybe the closest the show came to submerging itself in the abstract is the Season 5 sequence featuring a colony of ants swarming Jimmy’s abandoned ice cream cone.
“Once we realized all of the more literal interpretations that were trying to kind of poetically comment weren’t working or just didn’t feel like our show, that was just one of those things where the song landed perfectly. I remember it was like three in the morning when that thing popped up,” Golubić said. “I knew that I was looking for mountaineering stuff. So I probably looked up ‘yodel’ or ‘Sweden’ or ‘Switzerland’ or something. And then boom, I looked at it and watched it against picture and I was like, ‘There it is.’ I was quietly hoping that they would like it because it is a bit of a crazy idea. But again, these are brave filmmakers. When they get a crazy idea, sometimes they say it’s a terrible idea. And probably it is. But sometimes it works.”
At first, it’s an almost-inexplicable choice. In hindsight, it’s somehow the only one that makes sense. That mixture of holy and haunted, of not being able to hold back nature, fits right in line with a thematic idea the show played with throughout its run.
“On both ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul,’ we’ve always let the music be sincere in its placement, even if our use of it was allowing a little bit of edge,” Golubić said. “I love when there’s a friction between the scene and the music, and there’s something else going on. It’s not perfect. It’s like a boat going between too narrow a spot and you can see the sparks coming off the sides. I feel like those are the moments that feel exciting to me. It takes a while to get to that not being destructive, but being constructive. That takes some labor to get there. But when it happens? Man, it feels great.”
Season 6, Episode 1 — “Wine and Roses“
Jackie Gleason Orchestra, “Days of Wine and Roses”
Having already talked about the beginning, it only felt right to talk about the beginning of the end. The opening of Season 6 (at the top of an episode that borrows its name from the song) takes the black-and-white future world and brings it into an in-between present. A bevy of agents and movers (played by a local dance troupe) seize the property of Saul Goodman from his palatial New Mexico estate. The idea for using the track came from showrunner Peter Gould, who’s also the writer on the episode.
“That song has such a transportive quality of what the good life is supposed to be, in a really thoughtful and subtle way. That song itself has such a melodic familiarity to you and this idea that this is how it goes. To watch Saul Goodman’s house getting dismantled to it was really inspired. It really led us, in many ways, to how we handle the season as a whole,” Golubić said.
When talking about the idea of introducing an easy listening standard into the beginning of the episode, and the many ways that could be interpreted, Golubić arrived at maybe the perfect summation of why all these choices work as well as they do.
“It’s a lawyer show, right? So in many ways, one of the important things is to know that you’re presenting what both the prosecution and the defense would feel is a true representation. Do we feel that all the characters would sign off on this?” Golubić said. “I think Saul Goodman, watching his house getting dismantled, would also view it as a beautiful thing. And I think the cops that are dismantling it would also look at it from that point of view. It has to have a truth from each perspective to be able to truly resonate and to feel truthful. Otherwise, you’re just poking, in a way. There’s something very disrespectful about poking at characters who can’t defend themselves.”
The final episodes “Better Call Saul” are now available to stream on AMC+.