Last summer, I reached out to two of the creative minds behind one of my favorite television shows, FX’s The Bear, about the series’ distinctive and proudly unfashionable “dad rock”-heavy soundtrack. I did this because along with loving the show I also loved the music. More than that, the soundtrack spoke to me as a person who (like the characters on The Bear) came of age in the Upper Midwest in the ’80s and ’90s. I have never worked in a high-end restaurant, and I am a terrible cook. But The Bear nevertheless has made me “feel seen.”
I learned that Christopher Storer, the creator and co-showrunner as well as frequent writer and director, and his co-executive producer Josh Senior took over music supervisor duties as a way to save money on a relatively tight budget. But ultimately this decision gave The Bear a unique musical personality utterly unlike the standard, taste-conscious, run-of-the-mill “prestige” TV show. Even if you hate the music on The Bear, the show’s soundtrack feels handmade, like a mixtape, in a way most TV soundtracks do not.
This summer, The Bear returned for season two, and if anything Storer and Senior have doubled down on their unorthodox approach. Last season, they leaned heavily on the kinds of legacy alt-rock (Wilco, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Counting Crows), ’80 AOR (John Mellencamp, Genesis), and ’70s classic rock (Van Morrison) songs that you won’t likely hear in a boutique HBO series, but you probably will hear in a Chicago Italian beef joint. This season, they have gone back to many of the same artists in somewhat different proportions — there’s less Wilco and more R.E.M. this time — which helps to inform the singular world of the show and the personality of the characters. On The Bear, the soundtrack is practically a character itself, a Greek chorus that comments on the action and undergirds the overall Midwestern milieu. And it absolutely separates The Bear from other critically acclaimed TV shows, which typically use “cool” music as another signifier of “high-end quality” in nondescript, even soulless fashion.
When I reached out to them again last month, Storer and Senior admitted that both seasons of The Bear started with a playlist that they collaborated on. And that playlist stayed more or less the same as the episodes were created. We talked about more than a dozen of the songs — which include several tracks that originally appeared on other soundtracks — on this season’s playlist, and I found out why they were picked and what they added to the episodes.
Bruce Hornsby & The Range, “The Show Goes On”
Christopher Storer (Creator/Co-Showrunner/Executive Producer/Writer/Director): Basically every year, Josh and I put together a long playlist based on the scripts. Correct me if I’m wrong, Josh, but I feel like the one we made at the beginning of the year pretty much is the show, right?
Josh Senior (Executive Producer): Yeah, that’s correct. Outside of the ones that are scripted in or we know in the moment, we try and find a place for these songs that we share with each other while we’re coming up with how the whole season’s going to come together. And Hornsby, I think, was your first pick on the list, Chris.
CS: Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Mr. Beef with my buddy Chris Zucchero, and I remember one of the earliest memories I had of a movie filming in Chicago was Backdraft. If you remember, in the middle of the movie, there’s this really beautiful montage set to that song.
We knew this season was going to be a little bit of a departure, pace-wise. There was something captured in “The Show Goes On” that’s so calming for a second, especially after where we were coming from in season one. As we started to get more exterior footage from Chicago, it just felt correct. It was just such a great, off-the-jump needle drop.
Forgive me if this is a stretch, but this season has a bit of a sports movie feel, where you have a rag-tag team of misfits who come together for a mission. You also have a ton of Coach K references scattered throughout the episodes. And now you have Bruce Hornsby, who is a known basketball fan and amateur player, setting the tone. Is there any extra resonance there?
CS: 100 percent, man. I think it’s cool that you caught that, too, because each aspect of the music we wanted to reverberate somewhere in other plot lines and other themes running through the show. It’s interesting, because also a big part of picking Coach K was that he served in the military. And, obviously, there’s a big theme in this year about service and acts of service.
“The Show Goes On” also is pretty clearly about attempting to move on after a loved one dies.
JS: I always took something away from that song about searching for either positivity or some solace after something had happened. I think that’s what every character in the show is ultimately looking for.
CS: And the rebirth. If you look at the way that the season starts, it’s the polar opposite of the way that we ended the seventh and eighth episodes last year. Things are tense at the end of the show, and I think being able to introduce the audience to a new season with a song like that helped us ease people into the pace shift that the first episode has, and really established a new look at the world that people already knew a little bit about.
Wilco, “Handshake Drugs”
You used the Kicking Television version, right?
CS: I think it is the Kicking Television version. It was so funny you said that, because Josh and I were going back and forth on which live version to use. But it’s sort of a callback. We don’t have a lot of Wilco this season. That was keeping in the spirit of season one, where you feel like, “Uh-oh, it’s going to get chaotic again,” and then it slows down. There was something about that song that just felt that as much as this band of characters is trying to move on and start from a positive place, we see trouble is always around when you’re opening a restaurant or endeavoring to do something crazy like that.
Have you heard from Jeff Tweedy about how you have used his songs?
CS: We talk to Susie Tweedy. In fact, I texted her 10 minutes ago, weirdly. I love that family so much. And Susie is a dear, dear friend of ours.
Counting Crows, “Baby, I’m A Big Star Now”
What’s unique about how you use music on The Bear is that you break two unwritten rules about supervising soundtracks for TV shows: You’re typically not supposed to use the same artist more than once, and you’re definitely not supposed to use the same songs more than once.
JS: We don’t subscribe to these rules.
Wilco, Counting Crows, R.E.M., Van Morrison — you have this almost-repertory of artists that you use repeatedly. And I appreciate that, because it makes the world of the show feel lived-in and singular. In real life, people tend to listen to their favorite songs over and over.
CS: I think the easiest answer is we’re never trying to be cool. I know that sounds lame. This is stuff that we like and music that’s in our life. And growing up in Chicago, I listened to XRT a lot, and these are some of the memories I have from around the city and hearing some of these things.
And it’s interesting that you brought up Counting Crows, because this season there’s a Rounders poster in the basement of the restaurant. Rounders is one of my favorite movies. The writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien are dear friends of mine and mentors. And the song at the end of Rounders is “Baby, I’m a Big Star Now,” which had been previously unreleased since the movie, because I think there was some legal issues with the band and Miramax when the movie was made. But the fact that we were able to load it out for the show was great. And, as of yesterday, I believe it’s on Spotify. So, for Counting Crows fans, you could finally hear that song.
R.E.M., “Strange Currencies”
This is obviously the central song of the season. It’s practically a theme for season two.
CS: We use three different versions of it as a baseline theme for Claire and Carm. It was really cool to use the original track off Monster and then the Scott Litt remix, which is awesome. And then Josh was able to get a hold of a demo.
JS: That was really cool. One of the things I’ll say about this is don’t discount partnership in the conversation. Having the ability to have a dialogue with artists and their reps about music directly as the people who are making the show has afforded us such a deeper level of collaboration. That demo is a really good example. That’s something we didn’t even know was available. It’s not published anywhere. We hadn’t seen it in another movie. But we started talking about how we were going to use the song and the way that we were going to use it.
If you notice we have a small amount of original composition for the show. We really use our needle drops like composition. And so, you have these themes that come back. And I think it makes sense in our heads at least to reuse a lot of these artists and even songs specifically as a way to create some repetition and match the story as it’s evolving.
How did you settle on “Strange Currencies” being the song?
CS: Actually that was, I think, one of the first songs on the playlist when we knew that there was going to be the very, very beginnings of a love story this season. Josh and I both love, love, love, love R.E.M., but particularly that song. There’s something about “Strange Currencies” that, at least for me, reminds me of being 16 where anything felt possible and everything felt impossible. Because the lyrics are about failing and trying again. I think everyone has a different interpretation of it, but it definitely feels like the potential of something that’s not going to work out.
That’s on top of which, on the Scott Litt remix, Stipe’s vocal is incredible.
JS: Thematically, it’s right on. It’s every character in the show. When you step back and look even further away from Claire and Carm, it’s the relationship with Ayo and her father, Ebon and Gillian, Tina and her friends, it reverberates through every character.
This might be another stretch, but Monster is a maligned R.E.M. record. And I feel like you guys often pull songs from maligned records. And that seems to align thematically with the show as well.
CS: It’s so interesting, because I was a little too young to see when R.E.M. was at what some people would call their height, with Automatic For The People. So, I discovered them later in life and went backward. I loved Up, and I loved New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and I loved Monster. And then, it was like, “Holy shit, their other stuff is even better!” So going backward was this really fun foray into their music. But I love Monster, and I love “Crush With Eyeliner.” And there’s something about “Strange Currencies” that has just stuck with me forever, because there is something just heartbreaking in it that I can’t quite pinpoint.
I saw the Monster tour. And I was in Milwaukee, which is not far from Chicago. Richie and I are the same age, so my fan-fiction for The Bear is that we were at the same R.E.M. show in 1995.
CS: Richie was either at the Monster tour or Rage and Wu-Tang at the Rosemont.
Freddie Fender, “Before The Next Teardrop Falls”
Liza Colón-Zayas does a beautiful karaoke version of this song in episode five. Why was this the right karaoke song for her character Tina?
CS: Well, it’s a direct reference to one of my favorite movies, Something Wild.
Oh wow, I missed that.
CS: In the high school reunion scene, I believe Gary Goetzman is singing it on stage when Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels are walking in.
Episode five, which Joanna [Calo] directed beautifully, that’s one of my favorite episodes of the season. They’re at a weird high school reunion party, and it feels childlike. It’s like Carmy is 15 again. And I feel like because he started this mission of becoming a chef at such a young age, he missed out on a lot of his life and almost stopped developing. And for Tina, she’s with a new group of friends and scared, and there was something so gorgeous about her singing that random song in the bar.
The Replacements, “Bastards Of Young”
CS: One of my favorite songs of all time.
In the scene in which you use this song, a character is talking about how Pleased To Meet Me is the best Replacements record. Which is interesting, because “Bastards Of Young” obviously is from Tim.
CS: Tim is my favorite Replacements record.
JS: I think I like Pleased To Meet Me a little bit more. That might be controversial for this phone call. But much like Chris explaining the way that he came to R.E.M., I didn’t really come to appreciate that band until later in life. I’m a year or two younger than Chris, and I think I learned about R.E.M. from my older sister playing records in her room. When you get secondhand introduced to someone’s favorite music, they do a good job of just playing the hits for you. And I think that skewed my appreciation of some of these bands. Pleased to Meet Me is just really hard to mess with in my mind.
When I brought this up, Chris immediately said it was one of his favorite songs of all time. Is that enough to get a song on the show? It just has to, in your minds, rock?
JS: I don’t think we take picking the music particularly seriously. We’re in this world so much in making the show that it’s not a separate discourse. There’s music that we like for the reason that we’re already talking about, the world of the show that we’re trying to build. It’s not like we just have our personal playlists. The songs are all picked with that in mind. But liking a song, I think, is definitely enough to try it out.
CS: Seriously, dude. We’re not trying to impress anybody with our musical knowledge. Truly, we’re not show-offs.
Ira Newborn, “Weird Romance”
CS: The one music cue that Josh and I snuck in there that I don’t think anyone’s really picked up on yet. There’s a moment with Carm and Claire, where it’s towards the end of the party in episode five, and they’re having a nice quiet moment in the kitchen, and we got the Ira Newborn score from Weird Science.
Now that seems like a show-offy moment!
CS: It’s this really beautiful piece of music.
JS: And then the guy’s like, “Yeah!”
Lindsey Buckingham, “I Want You”
CS: We had a lot of fun in the Christmas flashback episode, because we kept thinking Donna made a Christmas playlist but then forgot all this other shit was in there. I feel like so many times I’ve gone to a Christmas party, and there’s been Christmas music, and all of a sudden you hear like Nilsson or Crowded House in there.
JS: Steve Earle.
CS: They played through all the Christmas music, and it just went to the next list she made. I was like, “Donna is a Lindsay Buckingham fan.”
Tangerine Dream, “Diamond Diary”
This song is used in in the “Forks” episode, which has emerged as a critical and fan favorite for the season. It also appears in Michael Mann’s Thief, which I’m guessing had special appeal because of the Chicago connection?
CS: One of our consultants this year is Donnie Madia, who owns Avec and Publican, these great restaurants in Chicago. He’s someone I met way back when I was hanging out at Mr. Beef when I was 20. He has always been this wonderful figure in our life. And he has great stories about when Michael Mann was making Thief in Chicago. I think our editor Adam Epstein put that in, not as a joke but as a surprise to Josh and I.
When we heard it we’re like, ‘This is such a great fucking drop, dude!” And then we were like, “Oh god, are we going to get beat up for taking a Thief cue?” But we’re like, “Who cares?” It’s so loving and works perfectly.
And by the way, Richie would love Thief. Richie would love Michael Mann. He’s obsessed with Ridley Scott.
JS: And we did use a Tangerine Dream song in season one as well. So it was nice to be able to use them again.
Otis Redding, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long To Stop Now” (Live)
I believe this is the Live In Europe version?
CS: Yes, it is.
I’m intrigued by how often you guys pull from live albums. You did that a lot in season one, and you did it again this season. What is the thinking there?
CS: There’s something really alive about it. It’s just the simple answer. There’s something about live tracks, where you know the song, but it feels different than the song that you know.
The thing I always say about the greatest live albums is that you’re hearing the room as much as the music.
JS: And this helps with our mix and the way that we approach sound in general, because we aren’t just picking the music. We do try and build around the fact that you can hear audience and applause and a little bit more distance between the performer and the microphone. I think those songs always feel more real and authentic when we try and put them in and around our dialogue and sound design.
Wilco, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and Pearl Jam, “Animal”
These two songs were both in season one, and you reprise them both effectively in the season two finale.
CS: Because episode 10 starts off with, I think, an 11 or 12-minute take, and we sense that the shit is going to hit the fan again, it was so great to start building up “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” only to reverse that by dropping “Animal” when Sydney and Richie save the day unbeknownst to Carmy, who thinks it’s still melting down. I think it was just such a great signal to the audience like-
JS: “Oh, fuck, here we go again.”
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” really does bring back the “sick to your stomach” feeling from the first season.
JS: And that moment is designed to bring back that feeling. It’s like a sensory memory where you’re hearing that song, and the camera’s not cutting, and things seem to be going really badly. I think we were hoping that the audience would see all of those things, and they’d be like, “Oh shit, here we go again.”
Nine Inch Nails, “Hope We Can Again”
CS: We should also say Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were really lovely and generous to us this year. In the finale, we ran a Nine Inch Nails song three times in a row.
Josh, is it three or four times in a row?
JS: It’s 30 minutes that we ran the song. It’s an eight-minute song that we ran for 30 minutes.
CS: As we were cutting the episode, we were like, “This works so well. Let’s just keep playing it.” And we run that right into an original piece by Trent and Atticus and then “Half A World Away.” And that’s the way we end the season. I think as far as music goes, that’s us in a nutshell right there.
R.E.M., “Half A World Away”
You mentioned that you had a playlist at the beginning of the season that you followed faithfully to the end. Did you always envision this song as the one to end the season?
CS: That was always it, because I think we were using R.E.M. as a theme throughout the season. There’s something in “Half A World Away” that really speaks to waiting for some miracle to happen or some form of connection and feeling lost at the same time.
JS: I think it was probably the second or third song that Chris added to our list, before I had ever even added anything. He was like, “Here’s this season. Here’s some of the music.” And you just knew that the whole thing had to land with “Half A World Away.”
Are you guys already assembling a playlist for the next season?
CS: If we’re lucky enough to get another season, we definitely have ideas.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.