Thomas Golubić, music supervisor for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, discusses how music is best used to amplify the story, why he builds a music library for every character and his favorite musical moments from Season 3.
Q: Walk us through your process. Do you talk with the writers early on, or do you wait to see the episodes before choosing music?
A: We tend to have meetings with the writers early on. Our feeling is that if we can give songs to the writers to help inspire them or just get excited about music in their own process, that would be beneficial to everybody and music will be more fully integrated into the show. The idea is to make music a part of the tapestry of the storytelling of the series as much as possible.
Q: Do you ever get a song or an idea in your head that you really like, but for some reason it doesn’t work?
A: One of the skills that you have to develop is an ability to be in love with multiple ideas at the same time. [Laughs] Sometimes, being a little bit more abstract or coming at it from a different angle is the right solution for the storytelling. You don’t want to be too close. You don’t want to be too literal or obvious. Part of the joy of being a music supervisor is the ability to keep on shifting gears. If somebody says they have a different idea, you don’t view it as frustration. You view it as an opportunity to find another solution that’s even more exciting.
Q: Season 3 not only moved the story to a new year, but also a new location. Were those your guiding principles in choosing the songs for this season? How did you highlight each?
A: I went to high school in the ‘80s, so I got a chance to explore different windows of my high school experience. It’s an opportunity in many ways to keep on revisiting a life that feels very far away now. We created [different] mixes. One of them was about the attitude that Mutiny would be taking to Silicon Valley, their energy and their sense of adventure and excitement – music we’d hope would be integrated into specific moments of the series as montages. We also created a Mutiny 2.0, which was exploring music at Mutiny and letting that evolve from the punk rock we heard a lot of in the first season. The idea was essentially to have two different sounds and to try to trace the evolution of their sounds.
While Mutiny was in Texas, we were very faithful to music from the time period and from local bands because we thought that’s what Cameron would be attracted to and what the guys would know. We integrated some pop music, but a lot of it was very much of the time period and of the location. For San Francisco, we had the chance to explore two different worlds – one of them was what was happening in the Bay Area in 1986, and that included bands like the Dicks, who were actually originally a Texas band who moved to San Francisco. The Jim Carroll Band was based in San Francisco; Camper Van Beethoven was in the San Jose area; Faith No More did their first single during the time period; Joan Armatrading was a big deal in San Francisco. We had a lot of bands that were from the area that were representing a new sound that was evolving. Of course, we also had the excitement of club life in San Francisco where the gay scene was really strong and there were a lot of active clubs. That led to a lot of fun stuff like Sylvester, who was a gay icon in San Francisco at the time and Pet Shop Boys who were very big in those days.
Q: Obviously, you can’t get all of those artists on the show. Is that why you enjoy making the Spotify playlists?
A: The Spotify playlists have been really fun because a lot of the music that we include are [songs] that we can’t really afford to put into the show. Putting in a Depeche Mode song is a very expensive enterprise – almost any song you put in there, no matter how obscure. It was also a chance to bring in bands like the Fall, who probably influenced our characters in a lot of ways but might not necessarily be a band that they were listening to. The Fall are a little bit like Tom Waits – when you put them into a scene, you almost can’t pay attention to anything else but that song. The Fall is really important to the mid- to late-‘80s, especially for people who are in counter culture. However, we can’t really put them into the show… because the music is so compelling and unusual that it gets in the way of the storytelling.
Q: Some music supervisors say if a viewer notices the score, they haven’t done their job correctly. Does the same hold true for your job? What do you want the songs you chose to evoke in the audience?
A: It’s always a balancing act. I think the quality of the music supervisor is based upon how well the artists involved calibrate invisibility. There are times when we use a song as score, so there’s almost no other sound, but it’s kind of sneaking it in. If we do our job well, you’re really so emotionally attached to the characters and what’s going on with them that you’re not thinking a song is playing. One of the things I’m very proud of is we calibrate really well how much you notice music, and it feels like it never detaches or detracts from the storytelling. We always hope that it enhances it.
Q: Cameron obviously listens to a lot of punk music. Do you have certain musical styles that represent the other characters?
A: We create the character playlists not so much as a way of definitively saying, “This is what these characters listen to,” but more along the lines of, “This is how we informed ourselves of the world that the characters live in.” With Gordon, we viewed him as being a character who basically stopped listening to music as he got into his professional life and we viewed him as being trapped in the ‘70s, which was a golden era for him. With Donna, we knew that she was a musician, so we viewed her as being somebody who knew how to play music. We thought she’d be someone interested in newer music, but would probably move toward new age or abstract jazz.
In the case of Joe, we always viewed him as a futurist looking ahead. It was very clear that there were artists who were ahead of their time, like Gary Numan or bands like the Wire and Kraftwerk. We also showed a transition for Joe. For example, in this season, we used a Paul Simon song from [the album] Graceland. He’s in a position now where he’s more emotionally sensitive. It was exciting for us to be able to have Paul Simon featured in this season, and it shows Joe’s evolution in a lot of ways. Bosworth is fun. He’s evolved tremendously from Season 1 to Season 3. But we don’t really need to evolve his musical tastes so much. He’s a Texas boy through and through, and he’s a bold enough man to be able to be in this new terrain, but he’s not necessarily going to adapt to the new songs. Country music is his comfort food in a lot of ways.
Q: David Bowie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello — you’ve featured some big artists this season. What were some of your favorites?
A: It’s a little bit like asking a nun which one of her children in an orphanage she loves the most. I know there is a Pixies song featured in a sequence [in Episode 9.] It’s one of my favorite moments of the entire series and probably one of my favorite moments of my entire career. The Pixies was an incredibly important band to me. I grew up in exactly the right window to discover their music and feel transported by it. I now get the chance to relive the nostalgia of it. To hear the Pixies being played by a DJ in a party, and you have an entire party going absolutely ballistic to the song… to me, it’s just a magical moment.
Q: What are some other scenes this season where you thought the music and story really worked well together?
A: There was one sequence that I really loved, which was when we have Donna going to Diane’s vineyard house, and she’s thinking about her relationship with Cameron and recognizing that there’s a fundamental breakdown in their partnership. She’s sort of mourning it in her own mind and she’s taken mushrooms, which has this fun, introspective quality. We tried lots of different ideas in that sequence. We found some songs that were really great, but the one that really resonated was Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” which captured the time period in a really clear way. It was a moment where we get deep into Donna’s headspace. That song has such a sense of regret with wistfulness for resolution. It has such emotional complexity and nuance. That felt really special.
Halt and Catch Fire airs Tuesdays at 10/9c. Sign up for the Insiders Club to be the first to receive show exclusives.