How ‘Billions’ Creators Brian Koppelman And David Levien Use Music As An ‘Emotional Accelerator’ On The Show

Pop Music Critic
05.24.18

Courtesy of Showtime

Last fall over the holidays I was desperately trying to avoid reality. Looking for an escape, I turned to a popular TV show called Billions because I’d noticed one of my favorite Uproxx TV writers, Brian Grubb, writing a love letter to it earlier in the year. It looked just far enough away from my own life to distract from the stupid minutia of what was bothering me, the characters were strong, powerful, and self-assured — but they were also caught up in tough situations, unfair portrayals, and pesky mistakes.

The plot was thick and moved with deftness, there was not one but two strong, badass female characters, there was a subplot involving a nonbinary character working in the midst of the boys club, and the whole thing swung on an unholy rivalry that was a thrill to watch. This all made for great, addictive TV, but as a music editor, what stopped me in my tracks was the soundtrack. Unexpectedly, I found old folk and indie rock favorites like Andrew Bird cropping up alongside a guest appearance from the rock gods themselves, Metallica!

As I continued to binge Season One, The Replacements and The Pixies showed up, and by the time my favorite Jason Isbell song was invoked, I knew this show was using music in a very specific, very special way. The needle drops moved with a life of their own, drawing in outside emotional forces to help move the internal feelings of the show. It was brilliant and unexpected, and felt unlike anything I’d ever heard before in a prime-time television show; the musical selections were just as important as the choices the characters were making, and the two elements worked together seamlessly to create this bigger, third thing.

For creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, music is more than just an addendum to their show, it is the show’s heartbeat. In a past life, Koppelman worked within the music industry, first managing bands, then as an A&R rep for labels like Elektra and EMI. After moving into the film and TV industry, along with his lifelong friend and writing partner Levien, the two began working on Billions with music in the forefront of their minds, not an afterthought. Part of their process involves sending songs back and forth, soliciting suggestions for specific types of songs from friends and fans on Twitter, and endlessly searching for tracks that will act as an “emotional accelerator” for the viewer.

That’s how artists like Courtney Barnett, Ryan Adams, The Hold Steady and Titus Andronicus make their way into episodes, alongside legacy acts like Van Halen, and Bob Dylan (who ends up being quite a force in the show, keep watching). Season Two included appearances from personal favorites like Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, and Drive-By Truckers. Season Three is currently in full swing and Lucy Dacus showed up in the first episode. As a fan of music and a fan of the show, I reached out to Koppelman and Levien to get some insight into their tastemaking process and song selection for Billions, to find out what artists they can’t wait to include as the show continues to unfold. Read our conversation below.

Courtesy of Showtime

I came into Billions purely as a viewer — I had no idea there was going to be such a strong music angle, especially in the indie world. But it seemed immediately clear to me as someone who both works in the music space and watches a fair amount of TV that the show was using music in a really different, unique way. When you started working on the show, were there certain songs or artists you knew you wanted to include?

Brian Koppelman: We’re obsessive music fans, so we’re always making lists of songs that could be good for the things we work on, just playlist after playlist. I think what happened is in the fourth episode of Season One, we came up with the notion of using that Andrew Bird song about psychopaths [“Oh No”] in the beginning and the end, and that’s how we really found the tone of the show. With that song, we used it during the scene when Danzig is shooting the guns at the deer, and then put it back at the end of that episode when Axe walked out.

We realized that we’d locked in on how we could use music that way — from then on, we started scripting a lot of the music. We always had these playlists as soon as we got the show greenlit — Season One’s playlist, Season Two, Season Three — Spotify playlists that are for just us and our editors to use. But it’s really a lifetime of thinking about this music, thinking about the ways in which the music can be a tremendous emotional accelerator for what goes on, on screen.

David Levien: Totally, yes. The other part of it, besides making playlists Brian was talking about, we didn’t even need to write the songs down because we’d been listening to them for so long. All the Bob Dylan stuff, any of the heavy metal stuff, and Van Halen — that’s all stuff we’ve been listening to and waiting to use. There was an episode in Season One, Episode seven, when we used all ’80s indie rock. Late ’80’s and early ’90s indie rock.

Koppelman: Yeah, the episode that ends with “Debaser” by the Pixies. For instance, the Counting Crows song this season was a great combination of both. We had loved that album, August And Everything After, we’re the perfect age where that album is super meaningful to us. It’s a huge treat to be able to have this canvas to paint on with this music.

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