Music & Sound in association withJungle Studios

Thinking in Sound: Setting the Tone with Matt Chapman

Advertising Agency
Los Angeles, USA
Quigley's associate creative director on the influence of musicians, his love of vinyl and why MP3s are an abomination

LBB sat down with Matt Chapman, associate creative director at Quigley, a fully-integrated brand performance agency that is setting the standard for performance marketing with its 'Brand-Led, Demand Driven' philosophy. Matt has over 25 years of experience in the advertising field working with clients such as Burger King, Coca-Cola, Triumph Motorcycles, and JPMorgan Chase. Outside of work, Matt has a strong passion for music and has been a musician himself since his youth. He even builds instruments (and now watches). Matt shared insights about blending music, sound, and visuals based both on his professional experience and musical background. 

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?

Matt> For advertising/design projects the starting point is the instant I hear the project description. Even before reading the brief, the cogs start turning and I begin thinking about who the audience is and how to connect them with our message. It always begins with a solid objective: “What are we trying to accomplish with this communication?” For music projects my go-to starting point is either an acoustic guitar or my Korg EMX-1, it’s part beatbox, part synth, part sequencer, and capable of creating entire finished pieces.

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang—and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Matt> For me, the greatest inspiration comes from having other musicians around. No two musicians will ever come up with the same idea when improvising, so everything is always new and unexpected. When playing alone it’s easy to fall into the trap of familiarity and it’s harder to break the rules. Breaking the rules is always where the most interesting creative lives, whether designing sound or visuals. One of my most memorable creative collaborations was not musical at all. It was with my friend Lance Wilhoite who ran his own SFX company and asked me if I could create some concept art and matte paintings for a movie he was working on. I painted several versions of the Martian landscape and designed a few weapons that could have been improvised from mining tools. It was a nice change from advertising and ended with me getting a credit on John Carpenter’s movie, Ghosts of Mars.

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

Matt> That’s easy! The people. Quigley has a culture and spirit, unlike any other agency I’ve worked at. Camaraderie and accountability go hand in hand and teammates always have your back. Drama and egos are no one’s MO here. Hands down, that's the most satisfying part of my job.

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

Matt> Honestly, I don’t think the role of music and sound is changing that much. I feel like it’s as important as it’s always been. 

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

Matt> Wow, this list could get long, really fast. The shortlist of musicians/ bands would have to be: 

Oasis. They exploded almost overnight with their first release Definitely Maybe. It was a new dawn for guitar rock and every tune was an instant sing-along anthem of tortured Englishness. It was exactly the right cathartic belligerence the music world was craving at the time.

Carbon Based Lifeforms. They are an electronic duo from Sweden that makes beautiful dreamscapes of lush, synthesised tones. They create a magical space and a sense of peace. Sometimes simple, sometimes complex, always ethereal and inspirational. 

Radiohead. They represent musical rule-breaking at its finest. They are true innovators in modern music, haunting, dark, and beautiful. 

There are also a few movie soundtracks that make my shortlist:

Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack for Alien (1979). An absolutely iconic soundtrack. Dark, beautiful, desolate, and unnerving. It sets the stage for discomfort and dread like nothing before or since. The way it complements the visuals and the entire storyline is auditory perfection.

Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Not just this one, but all the Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtracks. The Spanish guitar, the whistling, the spaces with just a simple flourish of a lonely flute. The music almost feels like the landscapes created it.

LBB> When it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Matt> Honestly, I try my hardest not to be influenced by other music. If I’m struggling for inspiration, I’ll switch instruments. If a guitar is not producing results, I’ll switch to bass or synth, or electric guitar. Usually, it is a single sound or tone that sets the direction.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (let’s say going through client briefs or answering emails) - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Matt> When I’m working on design and layouts I like to listen to trance/psychill/Psybient type music like Carbon Based Lifeforms, Stellardrone, Dreamstate Logic. Atmospheric-electronic mainly. When I’m writing, I’m all about silence!

LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low-quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions)— how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Matt> I’ll always record at the highest quality the equipment and workflow can handle. But on-the-go MP3s are an abomination! There are simply not enough ones and zeroes to correctly reproduce the sound. Cymbals turn into a mushy white noise, overdriven guitars sound like a chainsaw with bronchitis. I don’t listen to MP3s ever, I’ll always download the full-res version. I would much rather have quality over quantity.

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

Matt> It could be anything from Frank Sinatra or Julie London to Iron Maiden, Placebo, Hawkwind. Jazz, pop, rock, electronic, metal, ambient, electronic. It really could be anything. So, I guess the answer is that there’s no ‘typical’ listening day.

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

Matt> I’ve lost count of hard drives I have loaded with years of recordings, literally hundreds of tracks. One day I’ll have to collate them and archive them properly. From a listening perspective, I really do love the sound of vinyl. And I still enjoy a five-disc CD player. Pretty sure I’ll never go back to cassette tapes, but hear they are making a comeback!

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 

Matt> I’ve always been a design, tech, and engineering geek and as interested in three-dimensional creativity as I am in the two dimensional, so it was only natural to design and build my own instruments. I’ve designed and built acoustic and electric guitars, tube amps, FX pedals, synthesiser modules. A couple of years ago I built a cristal baschet (sometimes referred to as a glass piano). A friend sent me a link to a video of someone playing one with a note: “You should build one of these!” Five minutes later I was sketching rough plans and ordering parts on eBay! I’m currently building a vinyl record cutting machine and a hurdy-gurdy, both are very complex. I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do. I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Matt> When I was 16 I met Metallica backstage at the NEC in Birmingham UK after their gig. At the time they were my heroes and it was THE BEST THING EVER! I still have the skateboard that the whole band signed for me. Thankfully it no longer has wheels on it, which is why I’m not in a hospital.

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth. How has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

Matt> I think the big one here is diversity. When I was younger, I was always locked into a musical niche of some sort, metal, hip-hop, trance. The more of my own music I made, the less I cared about what box it fits into. Age has made me less biased and more creative. That shift now means I can truly enjoy my art. It’s no longer about the result, it’s about enjoying the journey.

LBB> Switching gears, what led you to become a creative within the advertising industry? 

Matt> OK, I’m going to give away my age and say, “fame and fortune.” I’m not kidding. When I began my career in the UK there were four TV stations and only two had commercials. If you made TV ads, just about everyone would see them. It was about as close as you could get to being a rockstar without actually picking up an instrument. Ad guys were the “influencers” of that era. Also, the craft of advertising has always fascinated me. I found the cleverness compelling and I wanted to try it. Those were the days when every ad was like a Super Bowl spot except that it wasn’t about the execution so much as it was about the idea. The concept reigned supreme, and ideas were the part that I really loved.

LBB> Is there anybody that inspired you in your initial career?

Matt> My first inspiration was probably Bill Bernbach and the amazing work DDB produced for VW in the 60’s. Those print ads are as relevant and viable today as they were the day they were produced. They’re so perfectly on point—spacious, elegant, strategic, clever, and respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Then in college, my dear friend Tim Brown, who is now a superb commercials director and filmmaker, inspired me. We got our first job together. He would always think of something completely out of the box, but never useless or “too mad,” it was always something we could nurse into a clever, unexpected idea. Tim made me braver, but never as brave as himself. And, then, the creative department at DM&B, Los Angeles, circa 1996. I moved there from the London office of D’Arcy. It was the first time that I felt truly welcomed into a creative department as an equal. The lack of department ego and camaraderie was just so refreshing. Team USA won me over in a big way.

LBB> Have you discovered new interests since taking the position of associate creative director?

Matt> Not since taking the position full time per se, but certainly, since working for Quigley, my passion for watchmaking has turned into something a little more serious. I think I enjoy it so much because there is no vagueness or ambiguity with watchmaking. The opinion is entirely irrelevant. A part is either in good order and functions correctly, or it isn’t and doesn’t. It’s the antithesis of advertising and communications where nuance and opinions get you to the finish line. As someone who would rather be two hours too early than a minute late, watchmaking gives me a sense of control. Advertising is almost always a rush, but you absolutely cannot rush when working on a watch. It’s slow, calm, and methodical for the win.

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Take Your Turn
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District