By Brian Ives
Over the course of nearly four full seasons, ‘Walking Dead’ has used a wide range of music from artists that span nearly every genre and era including Bob Dylan, Motörhead, the Stanley Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, Wang Chung and Tom Waits, whose songs “Hold On” and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” were sung by cast member Emily Kinney.
Over the second half of season four we spoke with Thomas Golubic of SuperMusicVision, who helps choose the show’s music, to get the scoop on what you heard last night. See our past “Walking Dead” music recaps here. Last night’s mind-blowing season finale, alas, did not feature any music. So, instead, we took this opportunity to speak to Mr. Golubic about his favorite music moments in the show’s history (and some of ours).
One of your favorites was Jamie N. Commons’ “Lead Me Home.” That was used in season three’s “Clear,” the episode where Rick is reunited with Morgan, the guy who rescued him in the very first episode.
“Lead Me Home” led to a huge music moment in the series. This episode, written by future show runner Scott Gimple, took Rick, Michonne and Carl back to their hometown on a supply run. This is where they discover what’s left of Morgan’s sanity, and starkly establishes what little humanity they have left. With Season 3, we found an opportunity to create original songs for the series to be released on a companion soundtrack album, and this is one of the first and most successful collaborations. In this case with talented young, UK blues-rock artist Jamie N Commons, who had only released a UK only EP at this point. His sound was so distinctive and compelling. When we reached out to his manager to work with him, Jamie took it upon himself to binge watch the series and create this wonderful song which found a perfect home at the end of this episode. And, it was a bit like “Breaking Bad,” where [the show’s creator] Vince Gilligan in particular really wants to use music that had never been licensed [for other TV shows or movies] before. [Golubic and SuperMusicVision supervised the music for “Breaking Bad” as well].
So did he get to read the script or watch the episode before writing the song?
No, he hadn’t seen the episode. One of the problems we have is that, because it’s incredibly popular, we have to be very careful that we never have any plot leaks. So we set up a meeting with his manager, Jamie was in the studio at that time. He so he binge watched the show the day before, tons of hours, and while we were at the meeting, he sent the song over. His manager played it for us then and there and we were like, “He got it, he nailed it.” He got the exact feel of the show. It was a perfect scenario. It was like with Ben Howard, he’s also an artist that people in the States don’t know.
Your use of Ben Howard’s “Oats in the Water” was powerful.
It was not a song he wrote for the show, it was a song from an EP that he did, Burgh Island. “Oats in the Water” immediately struck us as something powerful, unique, and perfect for “The Walking Dead.” When it came time to telling Hershel’s story in episode 405 (“Internment”), editor Avi Youabian placed “Oats in the Water” in the cut, and forever after the song became Hershel’s theme. We got so much attention for it, it was one of the most Shazam-ed songs of last year. Unfortunately, it was not part of our soundtrack album. So the label and everybody else was upset with us, but the truth of it was, he was not available to do a new song, and that song worked so well, that we just decided, ‘Let’s just put this in and make this happen,’ and I’m glad I did. He’s also an artist who’s a little bit off the radar, as is Sharon Van Etten [whose “Serpents (Basement)” was used in episode 404, “Indifference”]. I think one of the things that we do reasonably well, and part of the identity of the show is to not take really obvious songs that could pull you out of the scene.
When you’re putting the music together, are you thinking about what you’ll be able to use on a soundtrack album?
If I’m honest about it, you have to be aware of all those considerations, but first and foremost, it’s: how does it work in the scene. Is it something that is going to make this moment special and unique? But there’s a lot of other factors involved: I’m not the ultimate decision maker. We have show runners, and producers, they ultimately decide. I just try to make the best case possible for them and then hope that everything goes forward. And we have to hope that the artists and their management are interested in being involved. We’ve had a few artists that we’ve really wanted to work with that simply couldn’t come to the table because they didn’t agree with the business arrangements, of they didn’t feel that the show was something that they wanted to be a part of. That happens, too. You kind of have to keep a lot of things in consideration at the same time, and make sure that you ultimately make the smartest choice for the show. And for the ancillary soundtrack, and for the producers, and everyone involved; there’s a lot of parties.
It must be heartbreaking when you have a song in mind, and you put it in a rough version of the show, and then it doesn’t work out.
It happens. It’s one of those things, “Breaking Bad” was filled with heartbreak. The amount of songs that we thought were perfect and that we tried to get and that never even made it to be presented to Vince Gilligan is legion. We had so much stuff that we were absolutely in love with. It’s usually just budget, we didn’t have enough money. And people said, “No, we don’t want to do it,” or, “We can’t validate doing it.” Or a publisher wouldn’t play ball. It happened all the time. But our job is to make it look easy, the reality, though, is that it’s incredibly hard. No one should else should be aware of how much work it takes to get that song there. No one is ever fully aware of how much scrambling is going on in the background.
Fink, aka Fin Greenall, felt really right for the ramping up the war parties sequence after Rick and The Governor meet for the first time. The original version was too short; we sent it to editing to help build the tension in that scene. It worked perfectly, but we needed to make some adjustments to the song, and the music editing began to make it sound clumsy. It was a long sequence. So we reached out to Fink, to see if Fin was available to do a new track, he wasn’t, unfortunately. He was in the middle of touring. We commissioned a remix of the song “Warm Shadow” from label mate Dactyl, to extend Fink’s wonderful song to custom fit the scene and the story we were telling. That’s such an exciting scene, because you have your protagonist and your antagonist in the room together, and their lieutenants in the background. The tension just builds, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. And in our show, anything could happen.
We needed to establish that we’re moving into war and that song just did it. One of the tricks to this job as a whole is, I try to be very careful about the moments that we use immediately recognizable music. Sometimes it really works and it’s really important. A lot of other times, using a song that you have strong associations with really pulls you out of the scene. So, that’s a benefit of being on top of new music. It’s just about being aware when an artist is doing something really special, and there’s a special electricity that comes from their work, and then recognizing that that electricity also translates well with the scene and the energy that you’re trying to bring there.
That said, your use of Bob Dylan‘s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” from the Season 1 finale, “TS-19,” worked really well. I know it’s not easy to clear a Dylan song!
That one was not one of the ones I selected, I think it was selected by the editor of the episode, Hunter M. Via. We had just started looking for something for the scene, and when we checked in with Hunter, he said, “I think I’ve got something,” and I asked, “What is it?” I said, “Oh, God. We’re never gonna get it, dude!” And so we kind of kept on digging, but I reached out to Bob Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, who is an absolute sweetheart, and we kind of made a case for it, and he was very, very generous about it. And he spoke to Bob about it and Bob was very generous and they worked with our very limited budget. Sometimes my job is just finding interesting choices, or recognizing interesting choices when they come from somewhere else. I think in that particular situation, that was just the right song for the scene, and we had to figure out a way to make it happen. And thanks to Bob and Jeff’s generosity and kindness, we were able to get that in the show. I have such huge respect for artists who are willing to adjust for shows, because I know that that scene would have felt anemic, at least to myself and Hunter, if it had been something else in there. I think that it does take a certain vision on the part of a licensing company to say, “This is a lot less than we normally take for something like this, but this seems like a quality project, and we want to be a part of it, so we’ll work with you.” We never mess with numbers, we’re always very honest with what we have [budget-wise], so we just hope that people will work with us, and when they do, it’s appreciated.
It certainly served Badfinger well, when you used their song “Baby Blue” on the “Breaking Bad” finale.
Yeah! Exactly! It was crazy, I think it got better chart numbers than it did when it was originally released! That was exciting.
Another of your favorites was Wye Oak’s “Civilian,” from episode 201, “18 Miles Out.”
That one actually started out when we were working on the Season 2 trailer for Comic Con. At the beginning of each season, we start putting together these mix tapes of stuff we’ve been listening to lately, music that we’re excited about. What seems to speak to the world of “The Walking Dead.” And when we work on the trailer, we think, “Does this help us tell the story?” That song in particular was just one of those songs, there was nothing else quite like it. It was almost like hearing the Pixies for the first time, it was dynamic and exciting and beautiful. When we looked at what that season was going to be, it was very clear to us that this had the flavor of the season. Later on, when it came to that episode, it was just like, “That song might do the trick here,” and it did, during that scene between Rick and Shane in the car, and he’s looking at the lonely walker, and thinking about himself as this potential exile, and it captured the feeling in a really neat way.
Doing the research for this interview, I went back and watched some of the scenes from the old episodes, which I hadn’t seen since they originally aired. It’s crazy how much the characters on the show have changed, not to mention the cast itself.
Season 1 is so different from Season 2, Season 2 is different from Seasons 3 and 4. You also have different show runners as well, so you have different personalities, to a certain degree, telling these stories. Part of that, in a weird way, is a strength. It makes you feel like you are going through a really serious transformation. The characters who you thought were one way, like Carol – when we first met her, she’s this abused wife of this bullying alcoholic and she’s evolved into this astonishing warrior woman. Or, Michonne in the opposite direction, when we first met her, she was this ninja warrior, going through the woods with her two pet walkers, and now she’s eating chocolate bars with a teenager. It’s a more enjoyable transformation! Or think about how important Hershel is to the series. He was the beating heart of the show. And so when he died, it was appropriate that everyone dispersed, because it was like the heart had gone. And now we got to know them much more intimately with the new structure of the second half of this season. Like if we were to lose someone like Beth, we don’t know if she’s lost or not, we now know so much more about her, we’re so much more invested in her. And the impact of that loss would be much heavier.
Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) and Walker on “The Walking Dead” (photo credit: Gene Page/AMC)
One of the most nightmarish scenes was the staged fights in Woodbury, in a makeshift “ring” surrounded by toothless chained up walkers in episode 305 (“Say The Word”). You’re playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” during that scene, which really seemed to fit.
That whole thing was fun. This is at the Governor’s camp, it was kind of like Thunderdome. We had a song from this band called Baby Bee, who have this fun, New Orleans-y, kind of rockabilly type sound. But we went with Lynyrd Skynyrd, because, we thought, “What would these guys really listen to?” It really felt like Lynyrd Skynyrd was the band, and that song in particular.
It’s kind of like the infamous argument Steven Van Zandt had with David Chase about using Journey in the last scene of “The Sopranos.” He wanted to use the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina.”
No offense to Steven, he’s a wonderful actor and a wonderful musician, but there’s a reason there are other people who are making these decisions, ultimately. If you’re in that position, you have to respect the story first. When a supervisor or a show runner is dictating choices based on their own taste, they’re probably throwing in choices that are going to be untrue to the story or untrue to the scene. Which means that you’re paying attention to the song too much, and you’ve now made a point of putting in a song because of your taste, which probably means that you’re being disrespectful, ultimately, to the characters, because you’re putting in music that isn’t real for them. You’ve disconnected the audience from the characters. And I think that that is something that is a very important part of the discipline of music supervision.
Like, [“Breaking Bad”‘s] Walter White did not have great taste in music. So I had to recognize that we weren’t going to be putting in the cool s— for him. It was just not what he would be listening to. And in the early days of [“Breaking Bad”‘s] Jesse Pinkman, we couldn’t afford to put in cool Wu-Tang Clan songs or stuff like that, but we put in independent, relatively easy to clear hip-hop, because that’s what we could afford, financially. But also, that made sense for the character. He was someone who listened to music, but he wasn’t particularly discerning. So it wasn’t like we had to put in Drake or Lil’ Wayne. It’s very possible that he would know Drake or Lil’ Wayne, but part of the development of that character is that we were being truthful to him. And working within our budget, and that’s a balancing act. So, yeah, I’m with David Chase on that: it makes perfect sense that “Don’t Stop Believin'” would be playing during that last scene. No matter what your feeling about that song, it makes perfect sense that that’s the song Tony Soprano would throw on the jukebox. And that’s a song that would be on the jukebox in a place that Tony was in. I buy that.
I loved when Motörhead‘s “Fast and Loose” was used, before Merle’s death [in episode 315, “This Sorrowful Life”]. I figured, Merle might have been a Motörhead fan.
There was a little bit of luck there, and he found that car. It’s possible that he could have found a Hyundai with a Barry Manilow tape in it. There’s a little bit of artistic license going on there! If he hops into a car and he sees a Motörhead tape, he’s gonna turn it on. And Motörhead, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, were very reasonable. The truth is, pretty much everybody who’s managed to get licensed on “The Walking Dead,” has been very reasonable. Because we don’t have a huge music budget. We use music sparingly.
How did the idea of having Emily Kinney sing on the show come up?
I think it started with [former showrunner] Glen Mazzara. I’m not sure about that. I think we started using her at the beginning of Season 3, she sang [traditional folk song] “The Parting Glass.” Glen, I think knew early on, that Emily was also a singer, I think she made that really clear (laughs). Once that became an opportunity for us, it was really nice thing. One of the roles Emily has on the show is to be a representative for the idea of “home.” When it came to them battling their way into the prison, and having their first night of relatively proper sleep outdoors, but relatively safe from harm, having her sing an old song that [her father] Hershel had requested, a song about immigrants and their wistfulness about being home, it was just a very emotional and poignant moment. And we realized that that really worked. She has a beautiful voice. We’ve had her sing things that Hershel would have probably introduced her to, like “The Parting Glass” or Tom Waits,but also her own music, like Waxahatchee.
By the way, that Waxahatchee song [“Be Good”] came out in 2012, so what year does that make it on the show?
Mmmm…. we’re perpetually in the future on this show. We take a little bit of artistic license on this.
OK, how did you choose the Tom Waits songs that Emily sang, “Hold On” and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up?”
Those were scripted [by the writers]. We all discussed Tom Waits early on, and once the writers knew that using a Tom Waits song was a possibility early on, we were all supportive of that, and they wrote the songs in.
Lots of his songs seem kind of apocalyptic.
It’s funny, I was a huge Tom Waits fan in high school, I used to walk around with a “Tom Waits For No One” pin on my jacket. He has been an artist that I’ve forever wanted to place in one of my projects, and I went a decade of doing this without ever finding the scene. Part of it is because he’s so distinctive in his voice and his songwriting, it’s like bringing a bull into a china shop. It’s almost impossible to find an elegant way of having him [i.e., his music] in a scene. So few scenes are as surreal and wonderfully complicated and beautiful as Tom Waits songs are, they kind of live in universes of their own. And we finally came across one in [HBO’s] “Six Feet Under,” where Nate was dreaming that he was in the afterlife, and he was seeing his dad, and the two of them were sitting in a restaurant talking, and it was a very surreal episode and the idea was, that there would be a jukebox playing in the background. And it was like, ‘Here’s our Tom Waits moment!’ So we tried to license ‘Black Mariah,’ we got a clearance on it, which was awesome, everything seemed to be great, and then we, unfortunately, ran into some financial troubles, and we couldn’t afford the song anymore, which was really heartbreaking. So, it was my one Tom Waits moment and it disappeared. So, when “The Walking Dead” opportunity came up, I was absolutely thrilled. It was just divine intervention. And luckily, Tom and [songwriting partner/wife] Kathleen [Brennan] were so kind, and let us license it.