Better Call Saul returns for its fifth season on February 23rd — but don’t expect any current music to make it on to the soundtrack. If there’s one word creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould would use to describe the sound of Saul, it’s “wistful.” And, to hit that note, the duo and their music team often turn to the vaults.
When we last left struggling lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), he had finally been granted permission to practice law again — and he’s doing so under the name Saul Goodman (finally). Meantime, drug kingpin Gus’ meth-making operations are steadily underway, and former cop Mike Ehrmantraut has gone dirty, bringing viewers closer to the storyline of Breaking Bad.
As those familiar with both the Bad and Saul universes know, classic rock and even dustier tunes make up the bulk of the musical landscape of these shows — likely because, as the creators say, characters are always looking back at some bygone era for comfort or inspiration. On the brink of Jimmy’s transformation into Saul (which, for the uninitiated, comes before the advent of Bad), Rolling Stone spoke with Gilligan and Gould about some of their favorite musical moments from Better Call Saul.
Song: Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water”
Episode 104, “Hero” (also appears in Episodes 110, 201, 308, and 506): We get a look back at Jimmy’s Chicago scamming days with his pals Stevie and Marco.
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Peter Gould: We dreamed up this character from Jimmy’s past, Marco, who was played by Mel Rodriguez. They scammed together. We just thought about, “What would he hum? What would Marco hum?”
Vince Gilligan: This is one of the rare bits of music that was written into the script. It’s baked in from the get-go. This would be the kind of song that a fellow like this might have spring to mind when he’s lying there drunk in an alley.
Gould: Vince is right. It is very rare [that a song be written into the script], because usually all our music comes from Thomas Golubić, our music supervisor, or Dave Porter, the composer for the show. Those guys, they know more music in any particle of their little fingers than I know in my whole body. [This song] is like the ultimate adolescent male riff. Fortunately, those guys agreed that would be a good idea.
In fact, in Season Three, Jimmy takes up rudimentary electric guitar and he starts playing this riff. That’s the one thing he knows how to play. It always strikes me as a bittersweet moment when he picks up that guitar and plays.
Gilligan: Trying to get his old mojo back.
Gould: Isn’t that the truth? One of our producers, Thomas Schnauz, has an electric guitar in his office, and he often plays a little bit at lunch. I believe he was the one who sat with Bob and taught him how to play this particular riff.
Gilligan: Jumping ahead — not to say what happens in Season Five, but — it might make a brief appearance in the upcoming season.
Song: The Ink Spots, “Address Unknown”
Episode 101, “Uno”: Saul struggles with his empty new life post-Breaking Bad as Gene, the manager of a Cinnabon in Nebraska. We then flash back to when he was a struggling lawyer named Jimmy McGill, post-Bad.
Gilligan: This is the piece of music that opens the television series Better Call Saul, the very first teaser, the very first episode. I was fortunate enough to get to direct the episode. I wasn’t thinking of any particular music. Peter, were you, when we were writing it?
Gould: Absolutely not. Although, it’s very suggestive when you start seeing these images in black and white. It started to seem to call for a different tone or maybe music from a different era.
Gilligan: There’s a nostalgia to it. Thomas finds the most interesting and most perfectly off-the-wall songs for when we’re doing what we call needle-drops. There is a certain nostalgia that it evokes, but also this wistfulness. That word will probably keep reappearing here, because there’s something to me about this character, Saul Goodman — this feeling of bygone days, of better days that you’ve now passed.
I think a lot of the music around this series has a wistful undertone to it. It’s a musical vibe that was not perhaps what we expected or what anyone expected, but we tried to take it musically in a different direction right from the first frame and the first episode.
Song: Herbie Mann, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Episode 104, “Hero”: Jimmy counts his ill-gotten gains from the Kettleman family, whom he’d previously pursued as clients. Husband Craig Kettleman embezzled the money from his company, then bribes Saul to keep it a secret.
Gould: We have these meetings, it’s called a spotting session, where we sit with more or less a lot of the folks responsible for not just the music but all the sound on the show. I believe that Thomas was the one who said, “Let me try something here.” We both learned the lesson that if he says, “Let me try something,” the answer is always yes.
Gilligan: I would have never, ever thought of this. Personally, I wasn’t even aware of this particular Herbie Mann track. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” you don’t think of it turned into this mellow, jazzy piece of music. You think of it in terms of going to visit the museum at Gettysburg or something. Or you picture — as is often the case with Saul Goodman — some cheesy Muzak version of it playing in his lobby.
Song: Junior Brown, “Sleep Walk”
Episode 206, “Bali Ha’i”: Jimmy begins work at his new, very corporate job.
Gilligan: I love Junior Brown. My girlfriend Holly and I went to a Junior Brown concert back in the early Nineties — he was actually the opening band for John Prine in Richmond, Virginia. This guy opens for John Prine, and he’s playing this contraption he called a guit-steel that he designed himself. We had never heard of this guy. My God, that was the best opening act ever.
John Prine was great, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t caught John Prine since, but Holly and I have been to about a dozen Junior Brown concerts. He’s a great guy. Got to know him personally when I put him on The X-Files as an actor. He played a sugar beet farmer [in “Drive” in 1998].
Gould: This scene called for music. Jimmy is by himself in his corporate apartment, and he doesn’t feel that he belongs. He stays awake into the night just goofing around. It’s interesting. It felt sad. Thomas, as he always does, came up with a lot of wonderful ideas. One was the original version of “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny. It didn’t quite fit the timing.
Vince said, “Wouldn’t it be great to hear what Junior Brown would do with this?” Thomas immediately went out — and it was very much a last-minute thing — and called Junior, who recorded it in his own studio and sent it right back. It was, and is, perfect.
Song: The Bombay Royale, “Henna Henna”
Gould: This is an interesting moment in the show, because Jimmy is very frustrated. He’s working at a job that he doesn’t particularly like. He’s not getting the things that he really wants in life. He feels constrained. In fact, he has this company car and his special coffee mug that [his on-again, off-again girlfriend] Kim has given him doesn’t quite fit in the cupholders.
As soon as we knew he had a company car earlier in the season, we had this idea that we would end up having to break the metric cupholder to fit his cup. Finally, we got to the end of this episode, and in an act of frustration, he breaks this cupholder. Originally, this scene had no music; I thought it worked fine.
Thomas gave us a whole list of pitches for songs. We watched them one at a time. “Henna Henna” started. I will admit, the first few notes, I thought, “Is this a mistake? This can’t be right.” Because suddenly there’s this boisterous Bollywood song popping up on the soundtrack. As it went on, it just clicked. It had brightness. It gave the end of the episode this burst of energy.
Jimmy drove off and you saw: “Wow, I don’t know where he’s going, but he’s going there fast.” Before “Henna Henna” came into our world, the end of the episode was a little bit ambiguous, and a little bit sad. The song really changes the end of the episode. It brings a lift and excitement to what comes next.
Gilligan: If you had given me a million years and access to every song ever recorded by different voices, I would never have come up with this one. Like Peter said, I’m thinking, “‘What, Thomas?’ He’s on crack. What is wrong with this guy?” Then it’s like, the clouds parted, and I got it.
After we played it against picture, I think the room was silent. We all looked at each other and said, “Where the hell did that come from?” Shortly after that, we said, “That was perfect.”
Song: Dave Porter, Score for Chuck’s Search, “Kilowatt Hours”
Episode 310, “Lantern”: Jimmy’s brother Chuck is forced to resign from HHM, and his fear of electricity worsens.
Gould: This is pure Dave Porter score. I was lucky enough to direct this episode. The sequence that Dave was presented with is Michael McKean’s character, Chuck, Jimmy’s older brother, breaking down bit by bit. It starts off with Chuck just being absolutely sure that there’s some electricity leaking into his house. It ends with him having destroyed his house and really come to the bitter end of his life. During the sequence, he has an opportunity to reach out and get help, and he doesn’t take it, in my mind because of pride. It’s a very complicated sequence.
Michael McKean does a stunning transformation over the six minutes. Dave found a way to get under Chuck’s skin with this. His score is so mournful and sad and also energetic. He uses a single horn that really touches me. It’s a wonderful piece of music, and it takes a sequence that is six minutes long — which is incredibly long for a television sequence — and creates a through-line that goes like a dagger right into your heart.
Gilligan: It couldn’t be a more important cue, because [it accompanies] one of the very most important characters on the show, arguably as important as Jim McGill himself, because he’s Jim’s brother. He helped create Jimmy. It seems to me it’d be really easy to play “crazy” music. A lot of composers might go that way, amp up the discordance. Dave never does that. He never goes overboard. Instead, he keeps us in this character’s headspace. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s masterful.
Song: Tom Lehrer, “The Elements Song”
Episode 403, “Something Beautiful”: Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) makes his entrance as a postgrad student who finds his wares tested by drug kingpin Gus.
Gould: Vince, my memory tells me that you pitched this song for maybe the second or third episode of Breaking Bad, when Walt and Jesse are cleaning up Emilio. Is that right?
Gilligan: I think you are exactly right. It’s amazing that we never got around to it for Breaking Bad. This is a wonderful, brilliant songwriter — one of the many things he’s brilliant at; he’s also a brilliant mathematician and a professor. This is a guy who was very important to me growing up.
Gould: David Costabile really brought it for this “Elements Song.” In fact, we shot a take where he did the entire song letter-perfect. Then we added the bouncing ball and the lyrics underneath it. That’s on the Blu-Ray, I believe.
Song: Lola Marsh, “Something Stupid”
Episode 407, “Something Stupid”: Kim and Jimmy’s relationship unravels.
Gould: Lola Marsh did a version of this that really hit us where we lived. Because it’s a duet between a man and a woman, and because Jimmy and Kim are in the scene. We were also able to mix it so that the male voice was coming out of Jimmy’s side of the frame, and the female voice was coming out of Kim’s side of the frame. It was just one of those great moments of collaboration and alchemy. I’m so proud of that sequence.
I just love that version of the song. I know most people are familiar with the song from the Sinatra version. I will admit that I probably first heard the Chipmunks do it, so there you go.
Song: Burl Ives, “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
Gould: This is another Thomas story in my book. We had this sequence where [former cop/current criminal] Mike [Ehrmantraut] transported these German workers from their secret hideaway in a giant warehouse over to the building site where they’re building the superlab. It’s an elaborate, exciting sequence, but it didn’t have a lot of emotion. It felt very much like procedure in the cut. I thought it was great and visually really interesting. But why were we watching it exactly? What was the emotional impact? I wasn’t quite sure. Thomas came in with this song, which is Burl Ives singing “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Folks who hear this may think it’s a kids’ song, but it’s decidedly not, originally. In fact, my understanding is that it’s actually about a starving homeless man more or less hallucinating about where he’d rather be than starving and dying in the cold. Somehow, it gave soul to these Germans who are working on this illicit project deep under a laundry. It gave them a little bit of depth. No matter how well they’re being paid, it’s definitely a life of drudgery. I think that all came through so beautifully with that song.
Gilligan: Of course, you can’t help but to think: big mountain of rock candy, crystal meth. I love that aspect of it, too. That’s a fun little cherry on top. I’ll tell you, here’s that word wistful again. Sometimes the music on this show feels wistful, except not in-your-face wistful. This song, the words are about how things ought to be instead of how they actually are. In Better Call Saul, characters wish for a better life, wish for things to be different, and yet don’t seem to find a way there.
Song: Les McCann, “Burnin’ Coal”
Episode 408, “Coushatta”: Jimmy’s business associate Huell Babineaux assaults a police officer, and it’s up to the lawyer to keep him out of jail. To prevent Huell from running, Jimmy takes a bus trip to his friend’s native state of Louisiana, and begins sending mysterious postcards.
Gould: We had a sequence where Jimmy is riding a bus from New Mexico to Louisiana over the course of two days, and writing letters. In the context, you don’t really understand exactly what he’s up to, but there’s this wonderful energy to the scene and excitement of moving across the whole country — especially in a show that generally stays mostly in Albuquerque.
We were looking for music that would reflect Jimmy’s forceful personality, his persistence, his bouncing back, his unwillingness to ever give up, because this is sort of a last-ditch plan. Les McCann’s “Burning Coal” was just the perfect thing. That was one of Thomas’ picks. It’s great, moving music.
Gilligan: Music to be on the road with, right?