"There's an underscore of melancholy": "The Bear" producer breaks down season's best needle drops

Josh Senior discusses the show's soundtrack, from using R.E.M. "like a score" to Richie's big Taylor Swift moment

Published July 8, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto and Molly Gordon as Claire in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto and Molly Gordon as Claire in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

"The Bear" was a sensation upon its release in summer 2022. The show depicted the inner workings of a Chicago sandwich shop run by Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a decorated chef who took over operations after his brother dies by suicide. White won a Golden Globe, Critics' Choice Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for his acting, while "The Bear" itself racked up multiple award nominations (and a few wins) for overall excellence.

The second season of the show, which premiered on June 22, has been another rousing success so far in part due to the plot: Carmy and several characters from the first season, including chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) and cousin Richard "Richie" Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), work tirelessly to reopen the restaurant as something more upscale. 

However, this season's music has also caused a stir, thanks to choices driven by the series creator Christopher Storer and executive producer Josh Senior. The season's 10 episodes unfold to a soundtrack of artists with ties to Chicago (Mavis Staples, Wilco) as well as '80s music touchstones (Lindsey Buckingham's 'Holiday Road," Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink," Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy") and alternative-leaning cuts by Neil Finn, Squeeze, Harmonia & Eno '76, Tangerine Dream, Pearl Jam and Refused.

"There's an underscore of melancholy in that song, but it's also really hopeful."

Elsewhere, R.E.M.'s "Strange Currencies" is a recurring musical motif, albeit in different forms: the original 1994 mix, a 2019 Scott Litt remix and a previously unreleased demo song. "Baby I'm a Big Star Now" — an obscure but beloved Counting Crows song heard in the movie "Rounders" that's been difficult to find — is also included, as is Taylor Swift's iconic "Love Story (Taylor's Version)." 

The song choices are often surprising — for example, a Christmas-themed episode with holiday classics and some unexpected cuts — or poignant, as in a Replacements song used during a pivotal romantic moment between two characters.

At the moment, Senior is looking forward to taking a break, as he and Storer have been working nonstop for the last two years. "Because of the way that the show is timed and how long it takes to do each of the steps, it's a year-round pursuit," he said. However, he took some time out for a Friday afternoon chat with Salon about the music from this season of "The Bear."

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The music aspect of the first season of "The Bear" was very successful. What did you want to do differently — and the same — for Season 2?

One of the things that's really special about the show is that a lot of us do multiple jobs. Chris creates, writes and directs the show, and does the music with me. I'm one of the executive producers; I do the music for the show. And we also do all the post-production at my post house in Brooklyn, and my partner edits the show. 

Because of this, we approach the music in the same way almost as approaching the casting or the story. Everything we do at the same time. We don't shoot and edit the show, and then pick songs. Oftentimes, we go into the prep process — at least in the past two years — with a playlist of music that we've already picked and shared with each other.

One of the most fun things to do when we're getting notes on scripts, working through the prep and all those things is to make that playlist —  [we] start playing songs for each other, trying to top one another, or drawing on things from our childhood or personal experiences that connect to the story of the show. It's such an organic process. And it's funny because, more often than not, that playlist ends up becoming the soundtrack for the season. 

This year one of the things we tried to do was, again, not pick music because we think it's cool or not, but to pick stuff that we feel like is right for the show. 

And then, last year, I'd say, the sound of the show was very much the sounds of the music you would hear inside of [restaurant in the show] The Beef. And this year, the story broadens outside of the restaurant, and the restaurant is being transformed and rebuilt. And so we had the opportunity to draw from a wider base musically. That's something we were both really looking forward to.

I love that you have the Chicago artists represented, but there's people like Eddie Vedder, who has ties to Chicago, and then it spirals out to Neil Finn — and, of course, Eddie's a huge Neil Finn fan. I like the little connections; it's all very seamless in that way too.

Thanks for noticing that. We had fun with the music; we want the music to set the tone. If the music, at least in our opinion, isn't furthering your appreciation, or understanding, or depth of engagement with the actual story of the show and the characters, we try not to do it.

Although there are a ton of needle drops this year, we don't really play music just for playing music's sake. Being able to tie into Chicago — or in the Christmas episode, think about the type of music that Donna would play at her house — those are really fun exercises for us.

And you'll notice, those aren't all Christmas songs. She's got BoDeans in there, she's got [George Harrison's] "Got My Mind Set on You," which is like my favorite song. I mean, I had a 45 of that and used to jump around my bedroom playing it. And so to have the opportunity to put that in the show — and for it to fit — is something that we're really happy with.

I also remember hearing that on the radio all the time as a kid. It brings back such happy memories too, even though, especially in that episode, there's a lot going on.

Yeah. There's also a children's song in the middle of that episode, "Little White Duck" by Dorothy Olsen — that's a song you play for your two-year-old. That juxtaposition is something we try to play with a lot. 

And of course, we love R.E.M, we love Pearl Jam, we love Wilco, both of us, so much. That's just music that is something that we bonded over before we had the opportunity to do music for a TV show. The Replacements [too]. Being able to take these bands that deserve attention and radio play and conversation and present them, hopefully, to people who remember them and feel great about it — and the 16- to 20-year-olds that are learning about them through the show — that's pretty rad. That's a really cool thing.

The BearGillian Jacobs as Tiffany and Abby Elliot as Natalie "Sugar" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)I love that you chose R.E.M.'s "Strange Currencies." That song is a long-time favorite of the band and fans as well, but it's not the most obvious R.E.M song. What drew you to that one in particular?

I have to give a ton of credit to Chris for that. When he and I were talking, he was like, "I want to pick a song that sounds like what it feels like to be a kid, where it feels like anything is possible, but you really can't get anything done. You just don't know how."

There's an underscore of melancholy in that song, but it's also really hopeful. It works for the Claire and Carmy dynamic, it also works for the other relationships that we explore throughout the season — Sydney and her father, and Richie and Tiffany — and the way that people need forgiveness, need more opportunities [and] the way that people are steadfast in their dedication to achieving their goals. All those things come through in the lyrics of the song.

And it's just so beautiful, the progression in that, and the melodies of the song itself fit the world so well. And we love that song and think it deserves more attention. Giving that song the chance to be almost used like score in our show was the coolest thing in the world.

Part of the thing that I love about this job is because we do multiple jobs on the show, when we reach out to bands, we're able to give them a lot of information about the intention, about how the song's going to be used. That breeds a lot of collaboration. 

With R.E.M, after licensing a few tracks from them, we started talking and we explained the way we wanted to use the song and they were like, "OK, great. Here's the Scott Litt remix," which I think is arguably better — I mean, the vocals are just so amazing on it. And then they gave us a demo, and that demo was unreleased and we were able to put it out through the show. Those little things really make the usage that much more special and really help us use music almost as a refrain or a theme as we're telling our story.

I loved the fact that there were kind of different versions that were recurring throughout because it deepens the song's use and helps move the plot along. And as you hear it come up again, the song is slightly different, things have moved along in the series. It is like when you have a movie score and the music is a little bit different as it unfolds. 

And it's fun for us too, because we're fans of these people and it's never not surreal to hear that someone thinks your work is worthy enough to have their music in it.

And Michael Stipe has been posting on his Instagram Stories constantly. He's so excited.

Yeah, I don't even think that's real. It's insane.

R.E.M is also very selective about who they work with, which also must be gratifying.

That makes it all the more special. There are little needle drops that we put in to see if people notice. There's songs that we put in because we love them. There are things that we feel are perfect for the story and the characters. And R.E.M is all those things.

"We felt like it was such a special needle drop that it was worth pursuing."

The Counting Crows song "Baby I'm a Big Star Now" is also an interesting pick. How did this one come about?

It's not a straightforward song to acquire, but if you've seen the movie "Rounders," you love the song. And it's one of those songs that felt like a fable almost, like, "Oh, you know that song?" "Yeah." "I can't find it anywhere." It's not on Spotify. It's super hard to track down. There are YouTube versions of it.

[But] Chris has a really solid relationship with Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote "Rounders," and we started talking to them about how to get the music. On the label side, we went as far as we could. And we felt like it was such a special needle drop that it was worth pursuing. 

We go to Chicago at the end of January and the show goes on TV at the end of June, so there's not a lot of time for deliberation or negotiation or back and forth. And that was the one song that we were like, "We're going to start trying to get it on the first day and if we get it by the last day, we'll use it." We were very fortunate to get that one in the show.

The BearSarah Ramos as Jessica, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard "Richie" Jerimovich and Andrew Lopez as Garret in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)On the flipside, I love that you have "Love Story" (Taylor's Version) in there. That song has become such a touchstone for fans, but also for non-fans as well. What was the story behind getting that one?

It's funny, people have been talking about that, and it's great. The song really fits what's happening with that character [Richie] in that moment and his journey and where he's arrived. 

That song came up organically between Chris and I as we were putting the show together and getting ready to shoot. People were talking about going to see Taylor Swift, myself included; we're both big Taylor Swift fans. And last year, we found success in using a John Mayer song that we both loved. And we knew we didn't want to do that exact thing again, but we wanted to try and do something that might be a little unexpected, but also felt right in the world. 

And this year, you're learning a lot about Richie. To us, that was a great opportunity to play some new types of music. Taylor Swift was the perfect fit for that. We knew we wanted him to sing, and we thought that her version of the song would be the perfect place to go. It was special for that character in that moment. It was allowing him to really be himself.

What would surprise people to know about how to go about licensing songs? Based on what you're describing, with some of the songs you can go directly to people and some of the songs are a little more challenging. It's like a treasure hunt. 

It's a pretty straightforward process insomuch as most big record labels have a very straightforward way of doing it. You learn a lot about bands' rules; bands are allowed to set rules for how their music is licensed and used. It's one of those things where you need an open mind, but you also have to pay attention. There's lore about how tracks are licensed, and who's hard and who won't do it and who says, "I won't even look at an offer for less than $100,000." There's all this story being told.

"Anybody who's willing to let us use their music in the show is doing us a favor, no matter how much money we're paying them."

But the truth is we try and be personal. We try and be really clear. We try and collaborate. And we understand that anybody who's willing to let us use their music in the show is doing us a favor, no matter how much money we're paying them. And that mentality and that gratitude just helps us break through a lot of the process, which can be one that seems to have a lot of red tape.

Also, if you are like me and doing music on a show and also producing, get a great clearance coordinator. It's important to know that there are people that are professionals at the clearance aspect of music supervision. That's a partnership that is essential, especially if you have a few hats to wear on a job, to make sure that everything is done thoroughly and fully papered.

Were there any songs or any scenes where you couldn't get a song you wanted? Something where it was like, "Oh, this is perfect," and it just didn't work out?

There are scenes that we had other songs in mind for — but to be honest with you, this year, we got a great outcome every time we wanted to use a song. What I will say is, there are some scenes that had music in them in our earlier edits, that we removed music from, that are very effective.


We're not just playing music to play music, and we're definitely not playing music to be cool. We're trying to tell the story the best way possible. And we both loved the way that music was used in the films of the '70s and '80s where the needle drops play loud and long, and there's a lot of stuff happening. I don't see that a ton on TV, and that's something that we have been trying to do since the pilot of the show.

The BearJeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto and Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)It's so fitting that everyone is doing different jobs on a show like this too because so much about this season is just that, everyone kind of trying to build something from the ground up. I love that.

Making the show is a lot like watching the show. The show is very much reflective of the core team and the process by which we use to make our project.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Have you been surprised by the reaction? Because Season 1 was extremely well-received and Season 2 it seems like it's even moreso. Why do you think that is?

I would love to know the answer to that question so that I could potentially do this again in my life. We are so humbled and grateful — all of us as a group — that people like the show, that people came back to watch the show, that people are discovering the show.

We firmly believe in a philosophy of head down and good work. And in doing that, we really try and let the work speak for itself. So if people are reacting and responding to the show, hopefully it's because we've done a good enough job, or shown something that's interesting, and that people want more of.

But if you look at TV, there's something for everybody out there right now. There's so much TV that's out — and so much of it is good, honestly. People are good at making TV. It's hard, to be sure, but because there's so many places that are providing opportunity, more different types of stories are coming out, and maybe our show is an example of that.

"The Bear" is currently streaming on Hulu.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Counting Crows Eddie Vedder Fx Hulu Interview Josh Senior Music Neil Finn Rem Taylor Swift The Bear