Squeak E. Clean Mixes Business with Pleasure

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Last month, Sam Spiegel (aka Squeak E. Clean) released a record with his music partner DJ Zegon under the moniker NASA called The Spirit of the Apollo. The album, in the works since 2003, mixes and matches tracks created by Zegon and Spiegel with a wide variety of artists--from Tom Waits and Kanye West to Ol' Dirty Bastard and Karen O. The project also included contracting artists like Shepard Fairey, The Date Farmers and Mark Gonzales, along with directors Syd Garon, Paul Griswold, 3Legged Legs and Flourescent Hill for album art and videos. The level of collaboration is a conscious effort by NASA to show how people can be brought together by music and art, but the record is also an example of how a commercial music company can successfully bring together its personal and professional worlds.

Spiegel (left) and DJ Zegon
Spiegel (left) and DJ Zegon
Spiegel's Squeak E. Clean Productions has worked with commercial directors like Michel Gondry and (Spiegel's brother) Spike Jonze, scored the upcoming EA Games release Skate 2 and the latest David O. Russell film, Nailed. We spoke with Spiegel about the balance between his personal and commercial work, licensing NASA tracks and more.

Is everything NASA up for licensing through Squeak E. Clean? Is that part of the plan?
Absolutely. That's something I like to do with all my projects. It's a great way to give projects some exposure and a good way to make money with them in these times where it's hard to make any money selling records. We've actually been licensing these tracks before they were even finished, as instrumentals and things like that. We had one in a Converse commercial a while back, that Mos Def was on. Sometimes I'll be working on a record and be really excited about it, so I'll look to license it. An example is when I was working with Santogold and Mark Romanek was looking for something for these Ford Flex commercials he was doing. I played him some stuff I was working on with (Santogold), and I ended up cutting it to picture. It lends some good cache to the director, brand and agency because they have the chance to license something that isn't out yet but about to blow up.

NASA cover by Sage Vaughn
NASA cover by Sage Vaughn
How does your process differ between commercial and personal projects?
My process differs in that I don't have a team of people working on my personal projects. For commercials we have a team who writes for spots. I oversee stuff, but I can't be in on every song because we're creating so many all the time. In commercials, I'm a composer and overall supervisor, but in my personal projects I'm strictly composer.

It's just how I like to do things. I have the commercial company that funds all my creative projects. I really like to do my stuff DIY and not be depending on money people or some big corporation to help. This way I can work on my projects on my own schedule. On this album, it was great because we took our time to make sure it was right and we were satisfied. We're actually working on a NASA film right now and that's how we're working that, too. I'm funding it myself and it'll get out there when it gets out there.

Is that the idea behind teaming various animators and artists for the videos?
Yeah, for every song we're doing a video, each paring one of our favorite artists with one of our favorite animators. It's been really rewarding, seeing these people's work come to life. The artists we're working with are Mark Gonzales, Barry McGee, Sage Vaughn, Shepard Fairey, The Date Farmers, and a lot of others.

NASA cover by The Date Farmers
NASA cover by The Date Farmers
We also shot the whole making of the record, like when we were down in Brazil or when were in Jamaica working with Sizzla in his Rasta compound, we're working on animating on top of the live footage as well.

You bring your personal work into the commercial realm by licensing tracks, etc. How do you see the two sides of your work evolving together?
It's a challenge to balance the two. It's just a lot of work. I do love doing both sides and it's very rewarding to be able to both work on commercials but also have the opportunity to work on my passion projects.

For the company, we have the commercials and we make records but we also do events. We've done events with people like Motorola, Nike and Microsoft and the way I see the company growing is that we're funding and promoting the label with licensing songs in commercials, we're promoting these brands by hooking them up with bands involved in our projects and we can also do events for the companies. So ultimately I'd like to cross-pollinate all that, like Apple comes to us and wants to license some songs, so they do and then we throw events for Apple that both promote the brand and the band we're working with. So it's all integrated. I think it'll work because people's minds are opening to the various ways to promote their brands these days and more and more I think the cooler brands are open to doing stuff differently."
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