June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. When?
Speaker 2: I used to feel like there was a perfect song for every scene, and I would worry that, like, if I didn’t find it, somebody else would. And so I had to kind of relax and just know that, like, you only know what you know if you haven’t heard it yet. But it’s okay.
June Thomas: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, June Thomas.
Isaac Butler: And I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
June Thomas: Isaac, as always, it’s fabulous to share a zoom room with you. Tell me, whose voices did we hear at the top of the show?
Isaac Butler: June is always good to record with you and I’m sure you really enjoyed watching me yawn in a Zoom call 2 seconds ago. But anyway, the voices we heard this week are Bruce Gilbert and Lauren Mikus.
June Thomas: And what do they do?
Isaac Butler: They are music supervisors, most recently of two wonderful projects only murders in the building and everything everywhere. All at once.
June Thomas: Good grief. I know.
Isaac Butler: Right?
June Thomas: They’re clearly at the top of their game them because talk about two projects that have been universally acclaimed and there are also two projects where there’s a ton of music to deal with like it only murders. The three lead characters have musical associations immediately and one of them is dating a classical musician on top of it. Yep. And in everything everywhere there are multiple universes, each with a different sound.
Isaac Butler: Both of those projects use music in really clever ways and in complicated ways, frankly. And as you’ll hear, those two processes are really different. Only murders in the building was, I think, quite a bit more of a free for all in terms of how it conceptually came together. Whereas with everything everywhere, all at once, which is written and directed by Daniels, which is the name used by the creative partnership of Daniel Cohen and Daniel Scheinert, they had a lot of clarity from the get go about how they wanted music to work in the film.
June Thomas: Got it. Well, I am super excited to hear this interview, but first, I believe that you have an extra segment for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?
Isaac Butler: Yeah, we do a deeper dive into only murders in the building as an attempt to try to answer the most unanswerable question of all. What does New York City sound like?
June Thomas: That sounds amazing, and nobody would want to miss that. Fortunately, no one has to as a member of Slate. Plus, you’ll get no ads on any of our podcasts. You’ll get unlimited reading on the Slate.com website. And you’ll also get member exclusive segments from us and other shows like Culture Gabfest and the Waves. And then some shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood give you entire extra episodes. To learn more about becoming a Slate Plus member, go to Slate.com, slash working plus.
June Thomas: Now let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Bruce Gilbert and Lauren Mikus.
Isaac Butler: Bruce, Lauren, thank you so much for joining me this week on working to talk about your process.
Speaker 4: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Speaker 2: Thanks for having us.
Isaac Butler: So we’ve had one music supervisor guest before. This is only the second time we’ve featured music supervisors on the show. So I think we should probably just start on a very basic practical level, which is what is the job of a music supervisor? What what do you do?
Speaker 2: The basics are we just we oversee all all the musical aspects of a production, TV or film. Mm hmm. That entails, you know, selecting songs on the creative and putting soundtracks together. The mountain of paperwork that follows in terms of licensing and getting approval and all that fun stuff. And then in a lot of cases, you know, identifying a composer for a project, working with them, trying to get the direction just right so we can achieve the the musical goals of of the show.
Isaac Butler: And how did you become music supervisors?
Speaker 4: I got lucky and did an internship on The Tree of Life in Austin for that Terrence Malick film and a producer. First, I started in the art department and a producer on the show knew I was in bands and interested in music supervision, and he was like, Why don’t you just learn how to clear things on Tree of Life, which included hundreds of classical pieces? And so I kind of got the the boring side of the job down first where you have to do all the research. And I mean, some of it’s interesting like and finding the right recordings that you can use and really learn like the nuts and bolts of the clearance process. Mm hmm. So I came in, in kind of a weird way, but because there was no one way into this job, so I got all the ways into this job are weird.
Isaac Butler: But the previous first I interviewed started as, like, a nighttime deejay. Right, right. Yeah. And so you were a musician?
Speaker 4: Yeah. Yeah.
Isaac Butler: And I went to play.
Speaker 4: I played guitar and some piano and sing. And I studied film in college, too. So those are always my two interests.
Isaac Butler: And what about you, Bruce?
Speaker 2: Almost the opposite. I found my way into a. Job at a motion picture advertising agency, like a trailer house, as we call it now. And I was just, you know, the star job. There was an editing job. And I had been told that there was somebody there that picked all the songs for trailers or score pieces from other films. And that was of interest to me. I didn’t study music, but I played music just casually and was a rabid fan. And so long story short, I ended up. The sort of mailroom gig at the time at that point and in like this and any sort of production place was like driving around town, you know, before we were watching everything online, it was just like sending three quarter inch tape over to Sony and back to the place. And then I soon was able to assist this guy who as a music supervisor, I didn’t even know what that meant.
Speaker 2: Hmm. And before long, I was able to have his job. And before long, I had people. I was running a department. And after many years of doing that, it was all like huge campaigns for big movies. And it was gnarly. It was like, you know, it was high stress, high volume. And then I grew to like terribly tired of it because it was just became a grind. I took some time off and then like tiptoed back into music supervision. I was offered a TV show and I didn’t realize that it was like I had a crazy boot camp. From working in the trailer business and working on TV and film actually was like a lot less demanding and a lot more creative. And so I had this skill set that, like, I really didn’t even realize was like so valuable to me. But I had to enlist people and sort of learn myself about the horrific back end of this job, which is, like I said, a mountain of licensing and all that.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, perhaps before we move on, we should talk about the onerous process that is licensing and music clearances because you know, you just hear all the time. It’s so, so hard. You know, I recently wrote a book and they were like, Whatever you do, don’t use a song lyric as the epigraph.
Speaker 2: Because it’s going to.
Isaac Butler: It’ll take months to get just your epigraph cleared. You’re going to pay 10,000 bucks for it, you know, just don’t even go anywhere near it. And you have to go near that like every day as part of your job. So why are music clearances so complicated and onerous? Why is it so difficult to do that part of the job?
Speaker 2: Well, I would say that for some people, it’s not. I think it’s like their sweet spot. It’s their love language. They want nothing more than to email back and forth with a lawyer about percentages on their share. But I think for creative people like ourselves, I mean, this is actually a great question in terms of like the bigger question around music supervision and who’s fit for the job. Because even if you’re just a music nerd or a deejay or a musician and you came to it from or you were a label exec and the music industry collapsed and you’re looking for a job. There’s so much more to it than any of us could have ever imagined.
Speaker 2: And if you are maybe not equally creative and sort of OCD or detail oriented, the more you are at the at the latter, the easier time you’re going to have. Or if you’re busy enough and you can, unless people to help you, that you can delegate. And all of a sudden you’re like running, running a shop or like a business, which again the creatives in us aren’t, aren’t used to that or we weren’t at one point. Right.
Isaac Butler: Is it your love language, Lauren, because you started doing it as an intern?
Speaker 4: No, I was trying to run away, run away from it as quickly as possible. But I was I mean, I do enjoy, like the sleuthing aspect of when you find like a rare recording that you, you know, and you love and then use, you can like if nobody knows where where it lives and you’re the one that figures out that, oh, actually it belongs to you Sony ATV because I found this like crazy old 45 on like this random website or eBay and it connects it to this company.
Speaker 4: And that part’s like kind of exciting, but I think it’s definitely like a great knowledge and skill to having it helps you do the job better overall because you know how to communicate this to producers and to studios and everything, and it’s such a necessary part of being a good creative because you inherently understand what you can and you know, pitch or not sort of right. But at the end of the day, my dream would be to like, yeah, enlist people to do that for us. And I just listen to songs and drink martinis, you know?
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I was wondering about that, about what that process is like day to day. I mean, even if you’re not working on a specific film of like, you know, but your research process in general must be listening to as much music as you can and then catalog. I mean, do you catalog it in Spotify playlists? You know, how do you what are your listening habits like as a result of your job?
Speaker 2: It’s constant. I mean, we’re inundated with stuff from reliable sources and and mysterious ones, and then we sort of spend equal time following rabbit holes, you know, now obviously almost entirely online. But it used to be like, I would go to Amoeba, I would get as many CDs as I could afford. I would listen to every one of them. I would put masking tape on the back. I would buy scores. I would like find pieces of score that I thought were interesting. And from the trailer business, you know, it was mostly licensing preexisting score. So I would listen to every second. Of a score that came out no matter what.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And so I think because we’re not necessarily licensing preexisting score music anymore in our current roles, it’s listening to a ton of new music. But for me, like. The quote unquote problem with listening to new music exclusively is I think everyone else is doing that, too. I mean, it’s endless. But like other supervisors are probably looking for amazing new songs to plays. And so we spend a lot of time digging through dusty old, old bins, you know, virtual bands or real ones. But there’s so much content.
Speaker 2: And so I used to feel like there was a perfect song for every scene. And I would worry that, like, if I didn’t find it, somebody else would, or that I just, like, hadn’t sort of completed the task to perfection. And so I had to kind of relax and just know that, like, okay, you, you only know what you know, all the music that’s in your brain or your hard drive or your Spotify playlist. Like, that’s what you have access to. And if you haven’t heard it yet, buddy, it’s okay. You know, you may or may not be right about that, but I don’t know. That sounds kind of insane. It’s just like it’s just a bit of a perfectionistic aspect of what I do.
Isaac Butler: I mean, I think every artist and every creative profession struggles with whatever form of perfectionism they have. I mean, that happens to be yours, do you know what I mean? But it’s like, Sure, I get this sentence perfect. Or Yeah, sometimes you just have to be like, Well, every sentence can’t be a glittering, beautiful gem. Yeah. Yeah. You know, you get overwhelmed if that’s. If that’s the case.
Speaker 2: Yeah. Wednesday getting finished.
Speaker 4: But I think us working together can give us a little. I don’t know if in my experience, like, it gives you a little bit more security that when we decide whatever we’re sending to creatives, you know, like we feel duly confident about the choices.
Speaker 2: You know, totally beautiful.
Speaker 4: Part of the team know.
Speaker 2: That that’s the beauty of collaborating is that well edit each other’s stuff constantly. Like Lauren will send me a selection of ideas for a particular spot, a scene or a sequence or whatever. And I’ll and vice versa. And we’ll just be like, Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. I mean, we have a lot of the same instincts, but of course we’ll come up with stuff that the other person hadn’t imagined. And so like that combo of that is it’s really strong for us. It makes the job easier because like Lauren said, it’s like you’re more confident that someone sort of checked your work before an editor or a producer. A director has a chance to to weigh in. But I feel like by the time we’ve gone back and forth on something, when we’re sending stuff over, we’re pretty confident that there’s something. Even if sometimes we’ll sound like very few things, sometimes we’ll be asked for more. But we both are like, Yeah, this is the one. Probably like it’ll just be like the top of the list.
Isaac Butler: So how did this partnership start? When did you all start working together?
Speaker 4: I moved from Texas or Austin, where I started working to L.A. in 2014 because I wanted to remain freelance and develop it into like a bigger, more real career. And mutual friends introduced us so I could, you know, have like an informational meeting with Bruce about like, how do I make it here? How does this become a real job? And we just got along and and, you know, I think you said, you know, if I have extra work, I’ll throw it your way. And and then that started to happen. And after I got worked on my own TV show because I was mostly doing indie film still at this as of like five years ago, I started I got my own TV show in 2017 or something like that and learn the ropes of that side. Aside from just indie film, because Bruce mostly works in TV and then we kind of knew that we had like the ability to properly team up and collaborate.
Isaac Butler: So maybe we could talk about a couple of your your projects as a way of illustrating your process a bit only murders in the building which you all did the music supervision for. What were those sort of early conversations about the music like? You know, what do you want in those first conversations with a showrunner or a director to kind of get you going on your job?
Speaker 2: That show in particular is just like an absolute dream gig. They aren’t always that dreamy yet.
Isaac Butler: Everyone I’ve talked to who worked on that show had that response to it, that it was just like a joy to work on.
Speaker 2: I, if I’m not mistaken, Jon Hoffman, the showrunner, co-created it with Steve Martin. And so Jon runs it, meaning, I’m sure, you know, the showrunners, it’s like, you know, in this case, he’s just has the impossible task of overseeing absolutely everything. And so when it’s time for him to check in with us, it’s usually, I don’t know, music. It depends on the show. In some cases, it seems like music’s one of the last places because it’s so far in the post process. If it wasn’t something that was done on camera, I think someone in his position or even someone who reports to him is usually like so beat down that they’re just like, okay, like, oh, we’re mixing this thing and two weeks, like, were what you guys do, you know, are we cleared? Like, it’s just like the, the minutia of the stress around delivering episodes of TV and this is just like the opposite. It’s just like. Yes.
Speaker 2: And, you know, like what I would say, to answer your question more specific, like when we first met on the show, like, you know, someone hits you up about a project you made. You may or may not get the job, but upon our very first meeting, it was just like a party, like we were on a zoom with like, I don’t know how many people it was Jamie Babbit who directed the pilot, I think had brought us on our, you know, throwing our names in the ring. And we met with with Jamie and John and a few others. And it was just like, what is it? You know, like, what are we doing here? What could it be? Is it are there show tunes? Is it New York? Is it Broadway? Is it punk rock? Is it dirty? Is it ace freely? Like it was just like absolutely everything. And so we were able to craft that together conceptually.
Speaker 2: And then the composer said, has a huge hand. And in the sound of that show, some episodes are really song heavy. Some aren’t as much. But I would just say, I mean, this show in particular, it’s just like it’s been. It’s such a delight. And I think it has almost everything to do with John and his approach to making TV.
Speaker 4: And like saying yes excitedly kind of vibes, you know.
Speaker 2: Like if we float an idea, he’s just like, get, let’s try that, let’s do it, you know, and you know, I’ve worked with other people that are sort of the opposite impulse. It’s like, Show me more, show me more, show me more. Showing more, prove it, let’s hear. Like their creative process is such that like until every idea and option is exhausted, they can’t trust that they’ve found the right answer. Whereas like this sort of I don’t even know if. Jon I would venture to guess that Jon comes from a theater background and or like a improv background cause it’s like the sound of it all is like, really palpable. It’s just like everything’s always rising. It’s like that’s. Yeah, I love it, I love it. Let’s do it.
Isaac Butler: And the characters kind of are the three main characters anyway, kind of have their own musical vocabulary over the course of this show. Steve Barton Of course, there’s, there’s a lot of bluegrass in his character. Martin Short There’s, there’s a lot of theater music in his character, Selena Gomez, his character. It’s much more contemporary. Exactly. Was that something you were told at the beginning, this is what this is going to be? Or did it come out of those meetings or, you know, how did you figure out how to kind of route the cues in the various characters?
Speaker 2: It wasn’t really explicit from the start. I mean, in the pilot, we’ve through a do a leap of song. It may have actually been scripted over the introduction, Selina’s introduction, and then there’s like a Broadway piece over over Martin stuff. So I think some of it was sort of really obvious in a not in like a way that’s not interesting or exciting. But if we’re not dealing with like a character specific thing, I think it’s it’s always better to be a little counterintuitive about it. And so some of the songs, at least in like recent episodes, speak more to the predicament or the mystery or the story at large.
June Thomas: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Bruce Gilbert and Lauren Mikus.
June Thomas: Listeners, we really want to hear from you. Whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem, tell us a guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.
June Thomas: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Bruce Gilbert and Lauren Mikus.
Isaac Butler: You know, I have to ask. Obviously, this job entails having a very broad taste in music and very deep knowledge of it. There’s got to be some time when a director or showrunner has their heart set on a song you personally despise or that you feel like would be an ethical crime to unleash on the public. What does that ever happen? What do you do in those moments? You’re like, Oh my God, I’m not going to name a song. But you know, he wants this song and I just would rather tear out my hair than listen to the chorus.
Speaker 2: Yes.
Speaker 4: We hope it’s too expensive. Don’t just go.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then are you just like, oh, the rights just weren’t available? I’m so sorry.
Speaker 2: We weren’t able. Yeah, we just couldn’t track that down. Well, the good news is this isn’t even me being diplomatic. We’ve been lucky enough to work on shows where that isn’t something that we’ve encountered many times. It has for sure happened. I would say it’s like in some cases I’ve found it like there was something scripted and in TV, like the writer is so important that like a lot of times in my experience, like a, a producer will sort of honor something that’s scripted for as long as makes sense until maybe we see a cut finally in the edit. And it’s like, yeah, we’re not using that.
Speaker 2: Or like first of all, some writers will be like, I just threw it in there and others are like I wrote all week into it, in which case it’s like, well, maybe it does belong in there. Like, I don’t have like a proprietary interest in like making it my, my choice or our choice, right? Especially if it’s good in some cases, if it’s really weak, it’s probably been used before, maybe too many times. So that’s usually a pretty good deterrent. It can be like, Oh, I actually saw this on and then, you know, insert show that will turn off writer here, you know.
Isaac Butler: Yeah that’s a great that’s a great show. Yeah, that’s good. It’s like, well, you wouldn’t like it. It’s more of a Shelby Town idea thing from The Simpsons. You know, this is maybe a segue way to talking about everything everywhere all at once, because one of the running gags in that film is actually has to do with the that song absolutely. Story of a girl by nine days within the film’s multiverse, the song pops up a bunch of times with different lyrics that are relevant to whichever multiverse scenario we happen to be in.
Isaac Butler: To give a sense of what this is like, actually, let’s listen to the original song first. This is the story of a girl who cried a river in her. The whole world in Russia. You look so sad in photographs. I absolutely love her when she. And here are some of the versions you hear in the movie. This is the story of a. This is the story.
Speaker 5: Of a girl. She told me about the good things. This season.
Isaac Butler: Was that in there before you all signed on? Was that something they were they were doing to begin with, or was that an idea that arose out of meetings you had with the Daniels or how did that come to be?
Speaker 4: It wasn’t originally written into the script, although they do reference lyrics in a scene where Alpha Women is explaining to Evelyn, You know, what the feeling around the the darkness that they’re all trying to escape by, you know, jumping around these these multiverses. And that was sort of like a joke that had happened between the Daniels and as they were writing. And they kept it in there. And it came just kind of came about naturally in conversation from the Daniels about like how we could maybe utilize that song and make it funny. And they kind of pick those different moments.
Speaker 4: And then we were like, You know what? Let’s see if this let’s see if this band is down for this kind of right. Not expecting you never know with these kind of scenarios where you want to change lyrics and like you want to, you know, sort of make it like a tongue in cheek kind of experience.
Speaker 4: And, and luckily, you know, John Hampson who wrote the song and he was just immediately down just a film fan like so excited about it, just like so we had one phone call or we had like a one big zoom with everybody and they were just kind of, we were all spitballing, like funny lyric ideas about how we could change it for those specific universes.
Isaac Butler: And so you all wrote the kind of gag lyrics together.
Speaker 4: Yeah, they did together. The Daniel kind of like almost. They had some ideas and he had some kind of like came up spontaneously on this on our like kind of, I think the first meeting. And then he kind of got quickly got us just like little examples of of so it kind of was just one of those like beautiful kismet moments where everyone like, kind of like what Bruce was saying about how we feel about on only murders, just that first meeting, kind of like spitballing ideas and being on the same page and it sort of feeling like a fun party. And then you kind of really know that you’ve got something good, you know, from all the creative has being fusing together.
Isaac Butler: And it does seem like that helps address one of what I imagine as a creative challenge is the music supervisor on the film, which is like, what does music in another universe sound like? Like in a universe where we all have hot dog hands, what’s playing on the radio or whatever is that’s a weird creative challenge that I have to imagine was a new one.
Speaker 4: Yeah, it was. I mean, the Daniels, you know, they’re they had such an intricate relationship with all of those universes and obviously, like, had an idea about what they were doing. But we were trying to keep it, you know, interesting and find things that fit within each universe but also fit into the film as a whole. And I think that was and also that’s the most importantly, like the score is a huge part of that film and we definitely were trying to provide them with options for, you know, whatever they were thinking that when it distract or overpower the score, that’s kind of like sometimes gently but sometimes excitedly, like moving us along on this crazy ride through all these different experiences and universes, you know.
Isaac Butler: Well, with the score specifically you all, I mean, you didn’t write the score, but you were involved in the the process with the score writing, interfacing with the band and all that.
Speaker 4: I mean, we were around to help with some technical aspects and stuff, but mostly that was like the Daniel’s and son Lux just had like a great shorthand and kind of, you know, we helped them out with they did a cover of a traditional, like, Chinese opera piece that we found and, you know, like kind of help them incorporate elements of other songs into their score and then that sort of way. But they, they knew that they wanted to work together and just had such a great, like, rapport and were, you know, they worked so well and so diligently together and just such a great job.
Isaac Butler: So but sometimes, you know, as you mentioned at the beginning of the program, sometimes you do have to work as the kind of translator right between those two groups of people of like, well, what the director really means is that.
Speaker 2: Oh, yeah.
Isaac Butler: It has to be it has to be fiery and in a minor key. Yeah. You know, whatever it is.
Speaker 2: Yes, for sure. There are plenty of shows where I’ll get a call from a composer saying like, Hey, what the fuck was he talking about? And other times like, we won’t even hear from a composer because they have such a great shorthand either from, you know, prior experience with the director or with the showrunner, or they’re just a it’s a great fit and it’s seemingly effortless. I mean, the the composers are doing a ton of work, obviously, but the the conversation isn’t labored. You know, it’s it’s not tricky or difficult or or confusing.
Speaker 2: But yeah, sometimes we have to be a a translator or a a therapist. A lot of times sometimes it’s just like, yeah, talking somebody down. But, you know, like, it’s like a creative it’s a creative helping a creative process. And some producers are really well suited as sort of like letting, letting people know, like, it’s going to be fine, you know, you’re. I love what you’re doing. It’s you know, you can tell when someone’s really fucked because the producer will lead with a giant compliment before they dive into it.
Speaker 4: We love what you’re doing, but.
Speaker 2: Yeah, criticism.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, right. And the compliments. Not specific at all.
Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re doing such great work.
Speaker 4: So, yeah, it looks like you’re having fun out there, but no.
Isaac Butler: That’s the worst. That’s though. I mean, for my you know, there’s that 30 Rock episode where there’s the montage of Tina Fey’s compliments about the about Jenna maroney play is getting less and less sincere. And at the end, it’s like the program, the papers. So that was definitely my experience as a theater director.
Speaker 4: Sometimes there are times on, on other shows and films where we are providing. Even maybe sometimes before there’s a composer or helping the composer with like temping, you know, if there isn’t quite an idea yet between the showrunner or a director or a composer, we will kind of pull a big wide net together to kind of hone in on what what is this world going to sound like and what is the sound of the show? And I think, you know, with everything I wrote once those guys knew it and had it and but in other a lot of our other jobs like sometimes. People don’t know it yet or have it. And then that is when we do have a bigger creative hand in and giving them sonic, you know, templates to like at least be the first domino that inspires like, you know, the rest of it.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I was about to ask, you know, how do you help your collaborators get unstuck? Is it just you come to them with, like, 32 flavors of of what the piece could be? And then they say, you know, mint chocolate chip is the one I want, or, you know.
Speaker 4: And we send them ice cream. Yeah.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, on some projects, there’s a huge temping sort of workload where we’re basically offer for.
Isaac Butler: Our listeners real quick. Temping is the so they put on an edit that have the feel of what it should be, but aren’t the actual final music that the composer is going to do. Right.
Speaker 2: Yeah. It has its own fascinating outcome sometimes, which we refer to as temp love, where we’ve heard something against picture for so long that when it comes time to either license it if it’s a song or replace it with a score, which is often the case. Sometimes a producer, a director has a really hard time parting with what they’ve heard there, even if it wasn’t perfect, even if it was just a placeholder.
Speaker 2: And so when we’re temping something where we’re doing that, you know, throughout many, many, sometimes all the scenes. Sometimes a composer isn’t on board yet. Sometimes a composer doesn’t have a lot of stuff in their catalog that sounds much like what we’re going for. And they’re busy getting started on writing sketches and composing pieces that are ultimately going to, you know, be the connective tissue. And until then, we have to find stuff that like we think is maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of where we’re going to ultimately land. So that’s a big part of it on some shows.
Isaac Butler: One thing that’s come up a few times over the course of our conversation is that the the job entails a surprising amount of emotional caretaking for a job that, you know, maybe that isn’t what you thought it would be when you first got in the biz and were clearing the rights for some Addazio, for Tree of Life or whatever. And so I’m curious about learning to do that, learning the part of the job that has to do with putting people’s minds at ease and being a generous collaborator and everything like that. Did that come easy? Was that itself a learning process? Were you surprised at how much you have to do it?
Speaker 4: A little bit surprising, but I kind of. Understood it as sort of a how we all are so emotional and connected to and through music that I guess like it kind of inspires a little bit of like, oh, you have to be empathetic about those, you know, because like you feel that way about songs and they feel that way about songs. But I guess you kind of think like if you’re doing something like as a job, that it won’t translate into that world. But then at the end of the day, it kind of makes sense that it does, because as we are all creatives helping creatives, as Bruce said, and like we all have such, you know, our own emotional, subjective connection to the songs we want to hear or put in our projects or whatever. Yeah, I think I think it’s something that you naturally kind of learn through the process as your career evolves and doing multiple jobs to like come to expect it and then sort of like have the dialogue around it, become a better therapist as time goes on, I guess.
June Thomas: I think like.
Speaker 2: We all spent, I mean, most of us who found our way to this jobs have spent so much time talking about music and what moves us that that part is easy. And we don’t ever have to make a case for anything because the music speaks for itself. And so a composer who’s writing can write from their, you know, their true self. And if we’re finding music, I mean, that a different task, which is like, you know, it’s obviously terribly subjective, but once we’re all sort of on the same page, we’re just making suggestions and exploring possibilities.
Speaker 2: And I know even though we’re not writing music. I think I’m doing my best work when I’m not trying too hard, frankly. And so if I read a script and go to sleep, I can wake up with the four my like again. It’s back to like the perfectionistic aspect of it, but I’ll wake up with the answer, you know, for me, and if it’s a great collaboration, then someone will either push you to figure out something else if it’s not what they’re feeling, or in many cases they’ll totally be a kid into the same impulse. And so I think addressing that with a composer, just being like, if you’re trying so hard at something, it might not be the right move, you know, it might be something that you can sort of like take your foot off the gas a little bit and slow down and feel your way through it.
Speaker 2: I know for us, if it’s like working on a project where someone’s like asking for more and more and more and more and more, where we’re getting burnt out, maybe we’re not really like pursuing our true creative impulses. We’re kind of pursuing someone else’s attempt at one or what they think it might be, or someone has something in their head, but they’re not hearing it, but we’re not writing it. So I think when it’s like effortless and by effortless, I mean like something that comes easily because you’ve put in your 10,000 plus hours or whatever, not because you’re not trying hard. I think those are some of like the sweetest moments. So I think enlisting someone to do the same or sort of reminding them that like that it doesn’t need to be too terribly difficult, I think probably gets you there a little faster.
Isaac Butler: Well, Bruce, Lauren, thank you so much for joining us here this week and working and sharing your process with us.
Speaker 2: Thanks for all the great questions.
Speaker 4: You. Yeah, this was really fun.
June Thomas: Isaac. That was so great. Thank you. One thing that really struck me at the beginning of your conversation, when you were asking them how they both got into the music supervision business, was when they said that they were both music heads, which, you know, obviously is something that’s necessary for that job because basically it’s all about constantly coming up with the note, just as you might say. I recognize the desire to work in a field that you’re passionate about, but as someone who has a tendency to go all in on something that I’m in, to become fully obsessed with it, and then pretty often just kind of let it go. Feels like a lot of pressure to put on something you love. Do you share my hesitation about having a passion become your 9 to 5?
Isaac Butler: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, first of all, you’re absolutely right. They come at it from different directions. You know, Lauren, for example, is a musician and has a band called Gal Pals. And, you know, Bruce came to it from the advertising side and stuff like that. But the thing they share is this kind of obsession with with music and with figuring out, you know, how it fits into storytelling, but is, you know, taking that passion and turning it into their 9 to 5 really that different from what you and I have done with our lives?
Isaac Butler: June I mean, just because we’re not going to an office or drawing a weekly salary, that doesn’t mean we haven’t turned our passions. You know, writing the creative process, the history of lesbian activism, American culture, what have you, you know, we’ve turned those things into our jobs. I actually think that’s one of the really hard parts about writing a book is, you know, that books your job and sometimes you hate your job and you’re your own boss and sometimes you hate your boss. Just because you’re your own boss and it’s a passion project doesn’t mean you won’t have bad days. And I think, like making your peace with that is actually one of the really important parts of doing creative work.
June Thomas: Yeah, totally. And yeah, that’s a great point. And it’s also the main reason that you should never, ever, ever commit to writing a book on a topic that you’re kind of met with because you’re going to spend a lot of time with it, you’re going to have hard days. And the more you really do love the thing that you’re writing about and you just want to learn more and more and more, the less depressing it’s going to be. I think.
Isaac Butler: You know, in the sixties they could just blow through all that with amphetamines. You know, you could just call the right doctor, get prescribed some amphetamines and just just go to work. You know, you could get that book finished in six months, but you can’t do that now.
June Thomas: Yeah, we have no Dr. Feelgood. It was interesting to hear Bruce and Lawrence thinking around new artists. Basically, everyone who does their job is listening to everyone. So trying to find the next new sound is really stressful because it’s what, you know, everyone is doing and how can they find the right music? At the same time, though, we are living in a moment where almost every piece of music is pretty much almost instantly accessible. Oh, I’m feeling stressed. Just even thinking about those endless possibilities. I know that I crave some constraints to spark creativity. Do you have any tips for creating restrictions when none are provided externally? Kind of by the gig?
Isaac Butler: Yeah. Well, you know. Well, first of all, I think every gig’s going to apply some constraints. Right. And there’s none where it’s like the music could be anything. I mean, that’s never going to happen. So but, you know, it’s a good point. And I think in in almost every creative discipline, you’re actually going to hit these moments where you don’t have enough constraints and it’s actually much more difficult as a result.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I think in those moments when it feels like the possibilities are so limitless, you can’t do anything. What you have to do is just come up with some arbitrary restraints just to see what happens. I wouldn’t impose them permanently, but for like a day or two of work, or even an hour or two of work or whatever, you know, they can be really helpful and arbitrary restraints. They could be super involved today. I’m not going to use the letter E when I write. So every word I choose has to not have the letter E in it, or it could be much looser. I’m going to write without stopping for 20 minutes, no matter what. One of my favorite things to do this is a concrete tip is to look up an oblique strategy. Jun, have you ever use the oblique strategies?
June Thomas: Never.
Isaac Butler: So these are these creativity prompts developed by the brilliant composer, musician producer Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt. And as you might imagine, they’re not literal. You know, you can good. They were originally a stack of cards and you would just pick a card at random and it would have this one sentence or even sometimes one word thing to tell you what to do with your creative project. And you would go do it. Now, you don’t have to do that. You can go online, you can Google oblique strategy generator and it will spit one out for you. For example, I just did it and it said be less critical. More often, and then you try to figure out a way to apply that to the work you’re doing for a set amount of time.
June Thomas: Well, okay, let me do it. Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics. Right. Okay. Yeah. I mean, I am often much too in love with ambiguity, so yeah, I can get behind that also. Arbitrary restraints is definitely going to be my my next band name. Oh yeah. I loved your question about what they do when the showrunner or director is absolutely committed to a song that they hate. As you said, there are sensible arguments you can make, but when a writer has really connected with a song and kind of written to it, you have to at least make an effort to see if it’s going to be possible to use it.
June Thomas: Because of the behind the scenes podcast I made about the show, I spent a lot of time talking to the JS, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the showrunners of the Americans. And I know that pieces of music from the period where this show was set were hugely important to them when they were writing. They were so excited when the kind of end show calendar allowed them to use a song that had come out by then. So like they were super excited when it was time to use. Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits.
Isaac Butler: I remember that episode.
June Thomas: Yeah, but at the same time they were adamant that they’d never use like Sting’s Russians because that was just too on the nose.
June Thomas: Is there a show that you think has found that kind of happy balance between obvious and obscure?
Isaac Butler: I think the rule of thumb is default to obscure, actually, and I am really not a fan of the recent trend towards big needle drops so that everyone on Twitter will talk about the song used in Europe. So, you know, when you when I read about that happening, everyone’s like, oh, can you believe they use this song? All I hear is, Oh, can you believe the show had the budget to use the song like it doesn’t? It just sounds like money change raining down onto the table. It does not sound like the the song itself. And I think that if you do something that’s too well-known, you can get in a lot of trouble to take the Americans as an example.
Isaac Butler: I loved the chase scene where they use Tusk. He’s going. He’s gone. I thought that was such a fascinating choice to use this kind of disreputable song from Fleetwood Mac’s catalog and make it really work for that chasing. But I. I could spend the rest of our discussion today talking about how much I hated the use of with or without you in the finale.
Isaac Butler: We. That’s. I mean, that’s a song you hear in grocery stores. It’s marrow has been drained, you know. So it just so took me out of that moment that I actually, you know, there’s I hadn’t felt almost no emotional connection towards that moment in the show because of the really because of the use of that song.
Isaac Butler: I think one thing that’s happened, of course, is that, you know, TV has really gotten eaten up by these conglomerates that have their own music libraries. And so it has become easier to access those really expensive songs. And so there is a recent trend towards that. But I really love when I discover a kind of music through the milieu of a show or songs that I hadn’t heard of or, you know, you look up the Spotify playlist of every song played in Insecure, for example, insecure and constant music. And every choice was so brilliant. There’s a show called Lodge 49 that only lasted for two seasons on AMC. That friend of the program, Laura miller, and I are huge, huge fans of that. And the music from Lodge 49 is amazing. It’s its own groove, it’s its own kind of Oscar Mutantes, stereo lab, you know, scrunchies, surf, rock, you know, drugged out groove kind of psych surf music. And I just loved it. Going all the way.
June Thomas: Tom Suyyash. All the way. Pretty bad.
June Thomas: Wow. So one thing that I now want to write on a Post-it note and like put on the wall in front of me was Bruce’s observation that, quote, Most of us who find our way to this job have spent so much time talking about music that we’re comfortable with that part of the job. You know, he referenced the kind of 10000 hours idea, this isn’t something that you’re necessarily great at on your first day in a job. But at the same time, it’s kind of hard to be confident when you set out that you will develop those very necessary skills by like day 1200. You know, talking about things like ineffable qualities, like, you know, the emotions that a piece of music evokes, that’s really hard.
June Thomas: I am guessing that because you spent a lot of time as a director of theater, and that is a job that is insanely communication dependent, that you have some ideas about this. Are there things that people can do to get better at talking about ideas and movements and gestures and things that really aren’t always easy to express?
Isaac Butler: I think there definitely are. Although I should preface this by saying that as a director, I almost always chose all the music for my shows. I took very little input in it. I had very clear ideas. One of the places I started in thinking when I would read a script is what music comes to mind when I’m reading it. That’s when I knew that it had touched me in such a way that I would have something to say about it and want to direct it.
Isaac Butler: Well, you know, the biggest thing you can do, I think, when you’re talking about abstract stuff, is make it concrete as quickly as possible. Brian Eno was right. Yeah, you have to. You have to just use concrete examples. You know, it’s so easy for things to exist purely in the realm of ideas. And talking about ideas, being in the conceptual plain, that’s really important. But, you know, June, you and I might agree on an idea and completely disagree on what that idea looks or sounds like or feels like in the real world. You know, so we might be like, Oh, I want this song to be really peppy. And I’m thinking, I don’t know, Elvis Costello’s watching the detectives and that that drum hit at the intro. Right. And you’re thinking dusk. You’re thinking Tusker. You’re thinking, you know, Abba’s take a chance on me or something. Get up.
June Thomas: On me. And she says, I need a chance. I need you.
Isaac Butler: And those are two completely different versions of Pepe. So, yeah, you know, the earlier you can start talking about cops in real world examples, the better. I did this show Real Enemy Is, which was about conspiracy theories in American public life. And so in talking to the wonderful light and set designer Mere Rudy Evans for that show, we very quickly were like, well, obviously the visual milieu is going to pull from seventies paranoid cinema because that’s the visual grammar of paranoia that still affects us today. But even within that is, does it look like the conversation, which is has a lot of browns and is very foggy and is San Francisco and as the kind of grain in the cinematography because it’s a lot of long lens cinematography or is it the parallax view which has lots of shadow and sort of using only parts of the image and red, white and blue colours come up a lot, you know. So those kinds of questions, again, the more you’re just getting towards real world examples, the better.
June Thomas: Well, you know, this show always like gives me homework in the best possible way, and now all I want to do is watch those movies. So thank you, Isaac.
Isaac Butler: If you have the Criterion Channel, I think Parallax View is coming to it very soon.
June Thomas: Good to know.
June Thomas: All right, listeners, we hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s show. If you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And just a reminder that by joining Slate Plus, you’ll get at free podcasts, extra episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you’ll never hit a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com, Slash working plus.
Isaac Butler: Thank you to our guests, Bruce Gilbert and Lauren Mikus and to our fabulous producer, Cameron Druce, who is the bass line to our guitar line. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with pioneering feminist publisher and mystery writer Barbara Wilson. Until then, get back to work.
Isaac Butler: Hey, Sleepless listeners, Isaac Butler here. Thank you so much for supporting everything we do right here on working. We got a little bit extra from this week’s episode for you to listen to and hope you enjoy it. Thanks again. It’s interesting that you mention checking the end credits of the film for the for the song, you know, learn about new music. You know, I feel like maybe it’s because I was like a nineties kid. But I remember doing the same thing, you know, when I was in high school is really the era of music from and inspired by the motion picture. And you get that album because I don’t know, it had some obscure Morphine B-side on it and then discover another band through that or whatever. Do you think about that in your job like that? There’s a taste making part of it that maybe there’s like a part of you that’s like hoping some similar high school student is is getting turned on to new things through through what you’re doing.
Speaker 4: Oh, I definitely do. I mean, I think when I have an opportunity to even include, you know, my late musician friends that I care about and or not even friends just like sneak it in there, imagining there is some kid that’s watching and looking for stuff, especially if you didn’t have a, you know, a musical family that was going beyond like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. No, no offense to them or anything. But, you know, I was thirsty and I feel like if you’re thirsty for stuff, I mean, now, you know, there’s Spotify and all that. But I still think, you know, like how you were saying like how movies sort of like you emotionally connect to them and those songs can kind of like mean more. I think they settle in and and I think people do still discover bands from film. And I feel like that’s a cool part of thinking about paying it back or forward or whatever, you know?
Speaker 2: I mean, Lauren was saying earlier, like the harder we have to look to identify like the rights holders on something, I do feel like we’re on the right track in terms of potentially happening upon something that someone hasn’t done already. You know, if it’s not obvious, it’s it’s more likely that it or it’s it’s less likely that it’s been used before. So I think it’s less about like, oh, where or tastemakers and more about like doing original work and, and finding opportunities to place music that someone hasn’t necessarily singing against picture before.
Speaker 2: I mean, the sad thing for us as music fans or I speak for myself as like I listen to music almost exclusively now with picture in mind. So like, unless I’m putting on like a love supreme with my kid and just like making them listen to the side and side being told spun itself out. I’m. Almost always filtering through some any number of projects that we’re working on. I could be like, This song is amazing. Where does it live? You know?
Isaac Butler: Okay. So I want to return for a moment to our conversation about only murders in the building. You said that you were trying to create a uniquely New York sound for the movie, but that can mean all sorts of things, right? I mean, that could mean Brill Building. It could mean Neil Sedaka. It could mean Talking Heads, The New York Dolls. It could mean the Ramones. That’s exactly right. You know. Right. Billy Joel. It can mean ragtime, you know, it’s the city.
Speaker 2: That.
Isaac Butler: Has been so central to music for so long. So how did you go about figuring out what this New York, this particular, you know, uptown old co-op building, New York sound meant?
Speaker 2: We went down every road. I mean, we’ve it’s funny, like I think if you may have rattled off. Two artists that they’ve used this year.
Isaac Butler: Neil Sedaka, right. There’s Neil Sedaka all over the place this year.
Speaker 2: The Neil Sedaka episode. It’s sort of less specific to the building or even to like that part of town than it is just like New York in general.
Speaker 4: And New York has a character kind of.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I think initially that was the conversation. It’s like, what? Yeah. Where does New York live? Here, sonically. And the answer is, it really is all over the place. Like we don’t.
Speaker 4: Just like New York.
Speaker 2: Yeah. We’re not having to find just the sweet spot where the intersection of these three characters. So we’re able to toggle between, like, you know, a big Broadway piece or, or something a lot less grittier. I think that that’s like the beauty of it is like, good. If you can hear like something like that and then drop into a Ramones tune, then like, I’m that’s a show I want to watch. You know, more than one person can say, like, I love that song. I love that song. It’s like, it’s just a lot of fun for us.
Isaac Butler: All right. That’s all for this week’s episode. Thank you once again for everything you do to support us. And we’ll catch you next time right here on working.
Isaac Butler: So.