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Thinking in Sound: Cranking Amps and Solving Problems with J.L. Hodges

Music & Sound 144 Add to collection

Overcoast's co-founder discusses adapting from music fan to music professional, being a sound "hoarder" and getting clients excited

Thinking in Sound: Cranking Amps and Solving Problems with J.L. Hodges

J.L. Hodges co-founded Overcoast Music in the spring of 2012, and since then he's been involved in producing/composing original music for award-winning independent films, TV commercials, viral web campaigns, brand mnemonics, and a few apps. He's served as the creative director and music supervisor on projects both large and small. J.L. has an extensive knowledge of music history and is passionate about new music discovery. He always brings enthusiasm, and experience to the projects that Overcoast takes on, and is drawn to the alchemy of the creative process. Very few things in this world get him more stoked than collaborating with talented people who like to share ideas and take chances. J.L. also enjoys cooking, watching films his wife probably doesn't enjoy, beating his business partners in FIFA, 20th century American literature, and spending time with his wife and two daughters.

J.L. shared his story with LBB, discussing his hybrid independent-collaborative workflow, the evolution of the sound and music industry and following his father's footsteps as a gigging musician. Read more below!

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response? 

J.L.> When we are approached with a new project or brief, we collaborate with our clients on what problems we are trying to solve with music & sound on each project. We want to quickly establish a common vocabulary/working mood board of ideas with our clients, so we can speak freely about the project and have shared reference points. Often, we will start the process by having a call to discuss their ideas. I prefer this method to receiving a blind written brief. These calls always provide insight into the creative direction and set the tone for a solid back-and-forth process. 

Once we have the direction, we will start by exploring our library of pre-recorded tracks to see if something could fit, or jump right into demoing based on the timeline, and client preferences. As far as generating ideas, I think it’s ultimately important to find sounds/tempos/moods/melodies that serve the spot, but also provide a dynamic range. We want to give the client multiple options to choose from. It’s always a great exercise to try things that seem a bit ‘out there’. In this exploration phase, it’s just as important to find out what isn’t working, as it is to discover what is working well. I love that we get to provide ideas that are bold, and expressive on some projects, and other times provide light and subtle possibilities; it would drive me nuts if we just created the same thing over and over again. The variety keeps it fresh and keeps our skills honed. We treat the role that music and sound play in any project with a lot of respect, but ultimately, we aim to have fun with our clients throughout the creative process, and get them excited by the end result.

LBB> Music and sound are generally collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - do you prefer to work solo or with a gang? What are some of your most memorable professional collaborations? 

J.L.> The whole idea of two brains are better than one definitely applies when it comes to creating music and sound for commercials and films. Everyone who’s involved is going to have a different approach or perspective. I’ve learned over the years to really listen to anyone who’s providing insight, feedback, or a casual comment. Incorporating these ideas from different points of view leads to a richer end result… every single time. In terms of my personal workflow, I prefer to work solo for a bit because I tend to need a bit of ‘experimental’ time to get my ideas together. I then like to share where I’ve landed, get feedback, incorporate those ideas, and just rinse and repeat that process until everyone is really pleased and excited about where we’ve gone. 

One of the most memorable professional collaborations of ours was the process of creating the mnemonic for Google Chromebook. It was a lengthy process, and we explored so many unique approaches to a 1.5second piece! When you are operating on that micro scale, with the weight of a brand’s identity involved, it can feel very daunting. I’m very thankful of our partners on the agency side, who were encouraging, insightful, and truly collaborative as we worked through it. I’m very proud of that project, and the journey we took together to get there.

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why? 

J.L.> I love solving problems, especially ones that involve music. I feel so thankful that we get to work with some of the smartest, most creative, and insightful folks on both the client side and within Overcoast’s network of collaborators. I’m very excited that after 10 years, I still get to dig into these awesome projects and continue working in a field that I’m passionate about with the best folks in the business.

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it? 

J.L.> I think music and sound will always be an important part of producing successful advertisements. There is true value in the right music for a spot, immersive sound design and a great mix. I don’t think that will ever change. As the industry changes, and digital media continues being the most prevalent medium, I see it as an opportunity to push the boundaries even more. We aren’t confined by specific lengths of time things need to live in, so if you have a great idea or concept, and it’s 2 mins 11 seconds, Great! Let’s figure out what that looks and sounds like. Because of the volume of content that’s being created, and the speed that things are progressing, I think having an excellent selection of pre-recorded library tracks is a must. We’ve dedicated a lot of time and resources to expanding that aspect of the services that we provide. 

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why? 

J.L.> I’ve idolised so many musicians and producers over the years. I’ve read extensively any article I could get my hands on about so many different figures, but my all-time musical hero is my dad. I know it’s cheesy, but without his support, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today. He was a gigging musician before I was born, and when I came along, he gave it up, sold most of his gear and changed his path to make sure he and my mom would be able to take care of me. He had the patience to teach me the basics on guitar, bought me a bass so we could jam together, and came to every gig I had within 50 miles of our town for years and years. He was so supportive of our idea to start Overcoast, and was so proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background? 

J.L.> Background sound is essential for me if I’m not engaged in making music. It’s very rarely music though. I enjoy podcasts and interviews, and I love the sound of a televised baseball game in the background. 

LBB>The context and quality of audiences’ listening experience has changed over the years - the switch from analogue to digital… and now the divide between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low-quality sound. How does that factor into how you approach your work? 

J.L.> Ultimately, it needs to sound good and translate to a lot of different devices. So it definitely changes our approach when it comes to mixing, and occasionally it changes how we approach composition. Having multiple reference speakers that translate onto a phone/tv speaker, and allow you to check what they would sound like on a larger setup is key. The phone test, has definitely replaced the old school ‘car test’ from before.

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like? 

J.L.> I usually don’t listen to anything for the first hour or two I’m awake. I also try to stay off of my phone/screens in general. I like to make coffee, take a shower, maybe sit outside for a few minutes. Once my day gets started, it could be a heavy listening day if we are working on multiple projects, or it could be more of an admin day, and I may have some light music or a podcast going in the background. I try to find specific pockets of time to listen to albums that I’m excited about when they release. For example, I got together with a few friends and listened to the newest Kendrick Lamar album at midnight on the day of release… that was a really cool experience; intentionally listening to music in a communal way. It had been a few years since I’d done something like that.

LBB> Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take? Vinyl… hard drives full of random bird sounds… are you a hyper-organised spotify-er?

J.L.> I’m a bit of a music/sound collector. I am a vinyl nerd, but not in an ‘I need pressing x from this country with the blue label’ kind of way; more that I really enjoy having albums that I love, or that mean something to me in a physical form. I have a few hundred records at the moment. I try to thin the collection every time we move. Next time the records will come with the house. 

From the standpoint of collecting sounds, I am a massive hoarder. I have hard drive after hard drive filled with found sounds, drum hits, synth recordings, percussion loops, you name it, and I probably have it. It’s not necessarily a good thing to have all of this stuff if you’re trying to make things quickly, but having all of these sounds at my fingertips is like a safety blanket for me now. I love Spotify and have so many playlists; I wish they were more organised, but I have a habit of titling them something clever instead of what type of music they contain.

LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

J.L.> I love visual art. Before I was married with kiddos, I would go to the VMFA, a wonderful museum in Richmond, VA, by myself and just walk around a few hours a week. Great way to silently re-charge your creative battery. Being around art, makes me feel creative. I don’t know if it’s inspiration or guilt… like I should be making something. I’m not sure. Either way, I’m hoping to get back into that routine at some point with my children and wife.

LBB> Let’s talk travel! What are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels? 

J.L.> I love experiencing the different sounds of different cities around the world. I equally love the sound of nature while camping. The two extremes are just lovely. Not including travelling around in a touring band, and getting to play music as I travelled (which was an incredible journey in itself), my most memorable experiences are when I’ve visited churches and cathedrals around the world. The buildings are built with acoustics in mind, but their ‘resting’ sound with a few people meandering/talking quietly is just lovely to me. The combo of a beautifully crafted and designed space, and quiet reverence just does it for me.

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years? 

J.L.> This is so so true! I’m very thankful that there are still aspects of music and sound that get me as excited as I was as a kid. I can’t help but smile if I hit a big barre chord on a guitar through a cranked amp; I hope that always makes me feel joy. I geek out on the tiniest little details now, whereas before I just wanted it to move me! The biggest shift for me was going full-time into a career in music. It had always been my release, my pure creative outlet… when it became my job, there were some adjustments/growing pains in my relationship with music. It’s stronger and deeper now, but I don’t view it quite the same innocent way as I did in my youth. Because it was no longer my pure creative outlet and had become my job, having a career in music has made me a better cook! Cooking has become my no strings attached outlet now!

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Overcoast, Mon, 25 Jul 2022 11:59:00 GMT