Sounds Like A Dream
The Enthusiast: I first heard of you through Theatre of Disco, which to me has quite a jittery, intellectual feel with the crisp beats and cut-up vocals. But many of your soundtracks have a very different feel: a meditative, dreamlike quality.
Is this a ‘style’ you consciously adopt for your commercial work, or do you just think about what works best for the client?
Oli Chang: No, this is my preferred style, I think. In a lot of ways I never had the balls to do it outside of film, TV and advertising, but actually I have a new band called HIGH HIGHS with Jack Milas and that’s our whole thing: seriously vibey, meditative, folky, blissy.
Is soundtracking something you were always into, or did you fall into it as a way to finance your own music projects?
Yeah, it was always secondary to my own music but actually recently it’s been my main focus. However that will probably shift back at some point…
The “Cat’s Dream” ad for Fancy Feast cat food was the first one of yours I saw. I thought it was quite funny and subversive: a dude singing like a girl, with such bizarre lyrics: “Dreams say/Purring like a lover dreaming/Say true/Written in the stars that glitter in the half-light/Now, this is love.”
It was almost too surreal to get a run as a mainstream ad. To me it was like the soundtrack you play to the client and they sit there looking puzzled and then you go, “Well, I’ve got this other idea…”
It’s funny, I was touring with my band [Theatre Of Disco] in London and I had to do that track in my friend’s lounge room. And it was weird because there were about five people in the room non-stop watching TV, so I had to sing like a girl with them all looking sideways at me like I was a mega gaylord. It was funny, awkward but fun…
You’ve also posted a slightly different version on YouTube – how come you like that one better?
That one I did in the lounge room was the original – the one that made it to air was a third rendition of it. The agency asked me to put more instruments in it but I liked the more minimal version.
Tell me the story of how you started singing like a girl – you mention it briefly on YouTube when you’re describing your Bonds Skimpy Cut ad.
Oh, I had just moved to Tokyo and I got a brief to do this electro track with a girl singing about X-ray vision, but because I didn’t know anyone, let alone a girl who could sing well, I had to pretend to be a girl myself. I did like doing it and I did it a lot in those days, but I think now I prefer singing like a boy! However I write a lot for girls, so it helps to sing like one sometimes.
I also loved the Techno Chicken song you did for Domino’s Pizza – so simple and funny. It was a downloadable ringtone and was played as an ordinary video clip on Channel V – are you excited about that merging of advertising and music, or is it a disquieting prospect?
Hmmm… it’s inevitable, but I am a bit conflicted about the sustainability of a lot of modern industry. It’s fucked. However, creatively I always like extremes: I like really faggy, slamming dance music but also beautiful soft music. I think it’s fine for the commercial world to merge with pop music; I don’t think it’s an odd match at all.
Do you have any pieces of work that you look back on in embarrassment now? If you were to have a Reel of Shame, what’d be on it?
Um… so, so, so much, but not really ads I don’t think – apart from some American ones. Mostly there are a lot of bad, bad lyrics in the early days. For me lyrics are harder than music to make amazing.
You work for Nylon Studios in Sydney: how long have you been there? Walk me through a typical day for you at Nylon.
I’ve been there for about one and a half years. A typical day can be very, very full-on. Some days I might come in and a typical brief would be to write three tracks in the style of Phoenix: all production, lyrics, vocals, drum parts, et cetera, to be finished by 3 pm. And they have to sound incredible – otherwise the shit hits the fan and I’m effed. It can be a huge pressure but the team I work with are incredible. In fact it’s a dream. I love working there.
I’m also interested in your creative process when you get a new job. Do you see the footage, or are you working from a treatment or storyboard? How do you start to sketch up what’ll become the finished soundtrack?
I usually get the footage and work to that. I would try and get the core idea down ASAP, so I have time to make it sound wow. The hardest thing is always the core idea… that could be a guitar part, a vocal, a synth part, a beat and so on.
Do you get commissioned directly by clients or by ad agencies? Do they ask for you in particular?
Clients usually get familiar with your strong points and come to you for that thing that you do especially well. It’s usually either agencies or production companies and directors that come to the studios for our music.
Is soundtrack writing creatively satisfying in itself for you, or do you just see it as work that earns money? And what’s your view on musicians who also write ad soundtracks, or whose songs get licensed for ads? Do you ever encounter that ‘selling out’ mentality that some parts of the music industry seem to subscribe to?
I went through a long time of being precious about my music but I realised that was silly. I think these days a lot of bands and musicians – even established ones – are actually eager to get one of their songs onto a slick commercial. At the end of the day it’s a great thing to get lots of people to hear your music… even if it’s on prime time TV.
For you, what’s the best part of writing soundtracks?
The diverse range of styles you get to write.
And the worst?
The stress. Sometimes it can be really, really hard to get an amazing idea and to execute it perfectly within one or two hours.
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