Spotlight: Music

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You might call Asche & Spencer the thespians of commercials music. The musicians at the Minneapolis shop do some serious role playing when composing for spots, whether it's the cheekily clich‚ filmic scores for Nike "Asteroid" or EDS "Cat Herders," or the bizarre, twangy backwoods themes for the homely Jukka clan from Fallon's quirky MTV campaign. "When we're discussing music with clients, the first thing we ask them is what is the role of the music," explains 38-year-old founder Thad Spencer. "Then we start talking about who the composer would be, and we become that composer. Once you define that guy, then it's very simple to execute the music. It's kind of fun, sort of like acting."

Some of Asche & Spencer's memorable roles include "Aaron Copland, epic Western cinema feature guy, Clint Eastwood's right-hand composer guy," whom Spencer notes as the imagined mastermind behind Fallon's "Cat Herders" spot. The shop also composed the heart-pounding soundtrack to Wieden & Kennedy's "Horror" spot, for Nike, which shows an aerobically kickass chick successfully outrunning a panting Michael Myers-like stalker. "Basically, that commercial is a joke about all the Hollywood horror films of the last 10 years, so we created a composer who's the guy that's done all those stupid-ass horror movies," explains Spencer.

For the spank-happy Jukka brothers promos, which featured the hokey siblings getting their groove on to MTV, "We sort of became these sort of bizarre, Eastern Bloc backwoods composers that maybe didn't really get out much," Spencer laughs. Armed with just a rundown of the scripts and mug shots of the goofy guys, the company used an odd assortment of instruments that included zithers, recorders and wooden flutes. "We didn't allow ourselves to step outside of that instrument grouping, and we wrote a bunch of weird, funny little themes for the different characters - Big Jukka, Middle Jukka, and Little Jukka - as well as spanking music."

The shop even composes in tongues. For a quirky Diesel commercial out of Paradiset DDB Needham, which features a troop of sari-swathed men and women dancing and singing as if on MTV Middle East, Spencer and crew crafted a goofy love song that was sung in Egyptian. "That was a bitch," Spencer chuckles. "I was to write this piece of music that would sound indigenous and be sort of like weird, Middle Eastern disco. It's a bizarre culmination of our music meets their music meets a decade ago." And wasn't it kind of hard writing in Egyptian, considering none of the composers at the shop speak it? "One of my producers knew of a dishwasher at this restaurant in town who was also an Egyptian singer. He hooked me up with a couple girls who could sing, too. I had ideas about what I wanted to say lyrically, and I would say something in English, then they would translate it to Egyptian. We sifted through it all until we found something melodic and mellifluous."

Spencer plays keyboards and drums and got his musical roots doing session work in the '80s. He launched the company eight years ago with Mark Asche, a keyboardist and composer, who has since left the commercials business. The shop also has a growing branch in Venice, Calif., which opened four years ago. Most recently, Asche & Spencer wrapped commercials for Dell and Burger King, as well as a seven-spot campaign for the Nintendo Game Cube, out of Leo Burnett/Chicago.

For all its spots, the musicians at Asche & Spencer prefer to score against boards and concept, instead of working in post. About 70 percent of the commercials on the company's reel boast pre-scored themes. "The stupidest fucking thing anybody can do is pull a piece of existing music and lay it against their cut and then expect a composer to come at it with a clean slate," Spencer rants. The high-concept method worked well for the company's first full-length feature, Monster's Ball, starring Billie Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger and Sean Combs. Set in the Deep South, the film somberly depicts how its characters cope with tragic blows to their already misdirected lives. The film's score features quiet, haunting melodies layered onto the drifting paths of electric guitar, awash in echo and reverb. "The characters in this film are bleak," Spencer notes. "There isn't a lot of music in their lives, so the music of the film has to have a very subdued, ambient quality to it." The score has already earned early praise; Variety notes, "In a year of dreadful overscoring, Asche & Spencer's synth and guitar underscore is in perfect moody tandem with the images."

Spencer says that working on the film is similar to how he handles short-form assigments. "The first thing any good film composer does is 'theme' the movie, where you develop what the musical core will be, and then develop the other pieces from that. That's exactly how we work in advertising. We come up with a musical theme or style, which is sometimes the hardest part. Actually getting the music can be quite simple."

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