Better Call Saul Soundtrack: Q&A with Thomas Golubic and Dave Porter


Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (as Gene) – Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Music gurus Thomas Golubic and Dave Porter break down the secrets of the Better Call Saul soundtrack.

If you’ve ever watched the credits roll by on Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad, you’ve seen their names: Thomas Golubic and Dave Porter. And, while their names may look eerily familiar, you might not know exactly what they do. These men are responsible for creating the distinctive sound of two of the best shows in the history of television.

While Golubic holds the title of Music Supervisor and Porter is the Composer, the two work very closely both with one another and with showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould in order to provide a seamless and effective sound for the world of Better Call Saul. Both Golubic and Porter have been with the characters in the good old ABQ from the very beginning of Breaking Bad. They were there, creating an indelible soundscape for each step of Walter White’s chilling transition from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” and then, following the conclusion of Breaking Bad, they quickly signed back on for more with the prequel Better Call Saul.

Last week, we caught up with Golubic and Porter to chat about the unique challenges of starting fresh with familiar characters, how they’ve handled the return of fan favorite Gustavo Fring, and why the theme song has such a perplexing ending.

Hidden Remote: You two have been working so closely with this creative team, first on Breaking Bad, and now on Better Call Saul. You must be a well-oiled machine at this point in time!

Thomas Golubic: “That’s one of the great joys of this. We all knew that we would be working together. I think that Dave and I were surprised at how ‘not’ Breaking Bad it would be, and how challenging that first season was going to be. We were all collectively trying to figure out the tone of the show. On most shows you have a pilot, and we didn’t have a pilot to work off of, which meant by the time we went to production, and we were figuring out what the tone was in the first episode, we were already working on episode 2 and 3. It was a very interesting challenge, and I think you can sense that in the first season. All of us were collectively trying to figure out what we were making.”

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill – Better Call Saul _ Season 2, Gallery- Photo Credit: Ben Leuner/AMC

Dave Porter: “In some ways, having us all be together was an obstacle because we had for many years been a well-oiled machine. We knew what our roles were and exactly what each of us were bringing to the creative process, and then you throw us all back together, but Peter and Vince were adamant that we start from new. So we kind of had to disconnect all of those creative connections that we had made, not in process but in creative result and set ourselves free to rethink this world, even knowing that it may have to connect, ultimately, to Breaking Bad. It was more difficult than most of us had imagined. Not for nothing, but we had been pretty successful doing what we were doing, so throwing all of that out after Breaking Bad and reevaluating everything was a big challenge and one that everybody stepped up to in a big way.

Hidden Remote: That’s interesting. Sounds like you kind of had to forget what you already knew, which is definitely a difficult task.

Dave Porter: “We had to be as naieve and uninformed about the happenings of the future as we could be to really get in that right place, because obviously none of the events of Breaking Bad had even occurred.”

Thomas Golubic: “I mean, you listen to music of the two shows, it’s shocking at how different Dave’s score is for the two projects, and you get a sense of how much our own process and our own storytelling approach has expanded. One of the great gifts of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is that we spot with no temp music. We spot with clean episodes, which means our spotting session is really our creative opportunity for each of us to present ideas. It’s a very collaborative and a very open environment which means that we’re really able to have bad ideas in that room. And because of that, we can figure out strategically what the role of music is in each episode even knowing the world that we’ve been in before.”

Dave Porter: “We’re so fortunate that we’re working on a project that we have such extreme respect for. The musical choice that is going to serve Vince and Peter’s ambitions for the story is always going to trump anything else that we might want to do creatively.”

Thomas Golubic: “It’s a little like we’re painting while the train is moving. So a lot of ideas don’t make it on, but the idea is that we have to keep painting as we move forward.”

Hidden Remote: Speaking of moving forward, Better Call Saul is finally starting to encroach on Breaking Bad territory. How are you working on integrating the two musical worlds as the timelines start to merge?

Thomas Golubic: “One of the interesting challenges of working on a prequel is that you have to know where you are in the moment. One of the things that was most dynamic in Dave’s score for Breaking Bad is being with the characters where you are very much in the driver’s seat along with them. Whereas with [the sourced] songs we have a little bit more of an ability to give the music an editorial distance and help calibrate what we feel about the characters in that moment or our impression of them. One of our jobs is to make sure that we’re not painting the characters one-dimensionally because we know that they’re nuanced and that they are still evolving. They haven’t quite arrived at the point where we see them in the Breaking Bad time period.”

Hidden Remote: From that Breaking Bad timeline, we’re watching Mike and Jimmy – and now Gustavo Fring – work their way toward their ultimate involvement with Walter White. 

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut – Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Dave Porter: “I think that depending on which part of the Better Call Saul storyline you’re following it will inform you a lot about how close we are to that Breaking Bad world for different characters, and they’re all moving at their own speeds. For me, in working with the score, the music that I’ve been doing especially this season in Season 3, for Mike Erhmantraut’s character is the closest to a lot of the score I wrote in Breaking Bad, and that’s not a coincidence. He’s the closest to the crew to reaching that point where we know him as the person that we know and love in Breaking Bad. Jimmy definitely has further to go, and as Thomas said, we’re really enjoying the length of time that it’s taking to get him there and getting to know him better and the new characters that influence his world, but not Mike’s. That would be Chuck, primarily, and Kim, who are not at all in the Breaking Bad world. Therefore, Jimmy’s world as we have learned about it, since we know him as a much more fleshed out character in his own series than we did in Breaking Bad, has allowed us to do a lot more things and explore a lot more territory with him.”

Thomas Golubic: “One of the great luxuries we had with Saul is that we didn’t really have the musical identity for Saul in Breaking Bad, neither a score nor a source. So I’d say that Chuck and Kim are tethers for Jimmy. In many ways they’re the tethers that keep him in Jimmy world and not in Saul world. He may, in recent episodes, be making his foray into that world, truly for practical purposes, but I believe that in many ways he’s still tethered to them in his life. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them, but we do know that without them there’s not a lot holding him down anymore. And the innocence and sweetness of who Jimmy is is not really apparent in Saul in Breaking Bad. So part of the great joy of articulating this great tragedy is knowing where we’re headed, but making it that much more painful with a slow, steady dismantling of Jimmy into the cold calculation that is Saul.”

Hidden Remote: You mentioned Kim and Chuck being tethers for Jimmy and that both of them are brand new characters to this universe. How did you approach the musical selections for the two of them?

Dave Porter: “For me, approaching the music for the new characters in the Better Call Saul universe, Chuck is by far the most complex. There are just so many layers in his relationship with Jimmy, and it’s so vital to the storyline.”

Thomas Golubic: “With Chuck it’s very interesting in the sense that he’s a very highly developed person who is very critical, which means that there’s a lot of music that Chuck would find to be corny or too pop or would not fit within his world. Because obviously he has this allergy to electricity, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to play music with Chuck, so in many ways it’s very much, ‘let’s flesh out the character so that we understand him.’ So if there is a moment where it comes naturally and we have a real sense of where he is in that moment, it’s like we have to have a parallel world in which he was listening to music the whole time, even though he isn’t, so that we can calibrate in the right place in his character development.”

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 7 – Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Hidden Remote: And for Kim?

Dave Porter: “Thomas has done an amazing job developing Kim’s character, particularly some montages in Season 2 where we see her strengths but also her vulnerabilities. We’re really defining her as somsone who has her own code, not just morally, but in terms of how she operates and what she wants out of life.”

Thomas Golubic: “With Kim in particular, one of the things that we know is that we want the audience to be as invested in Kim’s success as Jimmy is, and recognize that Jimmy isn’t necessarily an ally in that success. As much as we love them and love the two of them together, part of the tragedy is that when we meet Saul in Breaking Bad there is no Kim in his life. We don’t know what happened to her, but we know that she’s not part of his life. So in a way we know that we only have so much time to invest the audience’s emotional connection to these characters and our role with music is to help give that role of nuance but also be cognizant of where we’re headed.”

“There’s still something that adheres these two to one another and that’s an important part of the relationship. You never want to be in the spot where you create a sonic dissonance for the characters where they emotionally are and where the music is. You always want to be true to who they are and where their connections are. Luckily the performers are so clear and the writing is so dynamic and exciting, and it gives us some really good signposts for where we need to be.”

Hidden Remote: Aside from the new characters on the show, Breaking Bad fans recently got to see the return of Gustavo Fring, a favorite from the original series. How did you feel about bringing him back into the fold? 

Dave Porter: “Gus was certainly one of my favorite characters not only to watch but to write music for in the world of Breaking Bad. We loved how our crew brought him in with appropriate aplomb. That reveal was great. At the same token, I would say that there’s an interesting challenge there too because even Gus Fring is not yet the Gus Fring that we know in Breaking Bad. It may be subtle, but there’s a level of difference in the building of his world and his empire in Better Call Saul than he is when he’s fully established. He’s even more of an ominous presence in Breaking Bad. So we’ve been careful to not paint him one-dimensionally.

Thomas Golubic: There’s a sequence in Breaking Bad where we had a Pollos Hermanos ad, which then morphed into essentially a montage showing Gus’ entire crystal meth operation and how it operated with sort of a Cumbia sound. And it was a custom project we had built with an artist named Chuy Flores. We asked Chuy to come up with a sound that would be a very typical Mexican-American restaurant, sort of sweet and touristic, and then have it turn into this psychedelic Cumbia.

Now, we came back to that in an episode in Better Call Saul, where we showed how the beginning of Gus’ meth empire works and where they were hiding the drugs inside the truck. We knew that Gus wasn’t Gus yet, and we knew that we didn’t have Pollos Hermanos as a fully operating drug empire, so we had to find a way to trim it down and scale it back to a more naive and more assembly version of the song.”

Dave Porter: “I think the master plan for Gus is well established. He might not know exactly how he’s going to get there, but he has ambitions for where he wants to be in Breaking Bad all along, but he’s a long way from it. He’s a much smaller player relative to the Salamancas early on.”

Thomas Golubic: “And a more vulnerable player as well. We know that when we meet Hector in Breaking Bad, he’s already had a stroke, and his ability to essentially operate is limited, but his power is still unquestioned, and he’s still a massive thorn in the side of Gus. So we may be viewing him as a more vulnerable version of himself, but for very good reason, because even under a diminished state, he was still a force to be reckoned with.”

Hidden Remote: And we’ve only gotten a few glimpses of Saul’s post-Breaking Bad persona, Gene, but they’ve been scored with very specific tunes. What can you tell us about the process behind creating the musical identity for Gene? 

Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk – Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 1 _ BTS – Photo Credit: Jenn Carroll/AMC

Thomas Golubic: “First, Gene is adrift. He’s literally like a balloon that’s been cut loose and that’s landed somewhere in a strange field. So in a sense, the songs all have another worldliness to them. They don’t feel like they’re a part specifically of Albuquerque or Saul Goodman or Walter White or the world of Jimmy McGill, they’re kind of off in a universe of their own. And I think all of those songs have that quality to them. They feel completely disconnected from a lot of things. And they’re upbeat songs about downbeat subjects. So I think there’s an emotional connection to those and where Gene is. But in many ways we’re like the audience, and we can only work off of what we know and what we have in the scripts. It’s not like Vince and Peter have given us a sketch of where Gene is going to be and what is going to happen with him. We’re waiting for it to be revealed, and one of the challenges is figuring out how we move forward with that. We might have more knowledge about what’s going to happen with Jimmy and why Chuck is gone or why Kim is gone, knowing that there’s a tragedy that we’re building to with Saul in his present life as Gene, we don’t know where it’s going to do. So part of the fun is being very immediate in that moment and finding a way to help to slowly calibrate that story.”

Dave Porter: “The whole Omaha universe is one thing that we don’t know anything more about than anyone else. If there’s a master plan, we’re not privy to it. So if there is it’s a closely guarded secret. Knowing those guys there’s probably several master plans that they’ll figure out once they get to that point.”

Hidden Remote: I’ve got one last question that fans have been curious about from the beginning. What’s the deal with the abrupt cut-off at the end of the Better Call Saul title theme? 

Dave Porter: “I can tell you that it’s how it always was. By the time Thomas and I got to discussions about the title piece, which is a commissioned piece, even I think before we were even involved, the picture editors had been playing around with some very lo-fi ideas for the opening titles. Whether it was by design or not, it stuck. There was even a period where we didn’t know what that piece was going to be, the idea of it kind of ending abruptly was always in play and everybody always loved it.”

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Thomas Golubic: “I think it was one of Vince’s ideas. And it was one of those things that basically we’re discovering Saul Goodman, and Saul is associated with the wonderfully corny ads he has, and there’s a wonderful slap dash sloppiness to him. He’s the kind of guy that will say, ‘got it on the first take, moving on’ and so I think that in a way, one of the most honest ways of presenting him is to cut off that final note. Like ah! Forget it! It’s fine! Moving on!”

“The UK-based band that wrote the song, Little Barry, called me up and said ‘we’re so excited about this, thanks for the opportunity! Maybe it was just in the UK, but they seem to have cut off the last note!’ And it comes up all the time that the last note is off, and one of the great joys of it is that it’s kind of a character moment. This is the character that would probably make a mistake and not fix it. It’s a sweet and charming way of saying you’re in this world with this character and you’re there on his terms.”

‘Better Call Saul’ airs Mondays at 10/9c on AMC.