Tone Def

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Peter Nashel, 34, and Jack Livesey, 33, go back a long way together. They were junior high school bandmates in Ridgemont, N.J., and in the early '90s they had a company called Trembling Chicken Music. Catchy name. "We just wanted a company called TCM, but we couldn't get it for legal reasons so we came up with the most ridiculous name we could think of," explains Nashel. "It actually worked out great," adds Livesey. "People thought we were kooky and wacky and on drugs - and we were." After Trembling Chicken, they went their separate ways for a couple of years, each with his own company. Then they opened Duotone Audio Group in New York in '97. Quite a contrast from the previous name; Duotone conjures a kind of pinstripey image, doesn't it? "Well, we upgraded our threads," offers Livesey. "And we don't do as many drugs."

"Seriously, we saw it as a kind of a sleek, retro-futuristic thing from the '60s," says Nashel. "Like early electronic gadgetry; a lot of the gear we loved working with always had very straight-sounding names but would be used for very cool-sounding music." Much the same can be said of their reel, where the cool grooves lie behind the usual dry spot titles. The pair pride themselves on their many tracks that sound like licensed music, but aren't. Case in point: The Sony "Dorm" spot from Y&R's "Plato" campaign, with the fuzzy blue alien babe magnet. It needed a breezy bossa nova to underscore the poignant moment when a hottie leaves Plato's bed but takes a special music mix with her as a token of his affection. "They'd been thinking about licensing Bebel Gilberto, but they asked us if we could write a piece of music that people would think came off a record," recalls Nashel. "So we spent a lot of time trying to fool the public. And it worked. There were a ton of requests for the record."

"There's an ongoing debate about whether or not commercials music should be held to any of the principles or techniques that would serve a film or a record," adds Livesey. "We believe our music could serve any medium, so we approach it just as music. We're finding more and more validation that we can keep our flavor intact regardless of the medium." Such validation elsewhere on the reel includes two guys trying to hail the same cab in Nike's "Taxi," backed with fiery flamenco; and a cheesy Farfisa organ groove that fuels a night on the town with George Washington to promote the new golden dollar coin. The guys are also very excited about their Excite spot, for which they hired Robert Goulet to sing a big-band arrangement of "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You."

But their coolest compositional coup may be a pair of European cinema commercials, one for Martini & Rossi, the other for Bacardi, both via Amster Yard, which gives them the chance to stretch out. Martini & Rossi's "Mogul" features an old gangster-type losing his mistress to a young gangster-type, to the twang of an Ennio Morricone-ish spaghetti Western chart crossed with Portishead. Bacardi's "Tattoo," set in Cuba, takes us through a night of overheated, ink-stained carousing, propelled by salacious salsa. "We got to do surround-sound trailer mixes on these," says Nashel with satisfaction. "They're almost filmic, like mini soundtracks."

Speaking of which, the two will make their movie music debut with the indie feature Deep End, to be screened at Sundance this month. "It's a melodrama set in Lake Tahoe, so there's an acoustic element, orchestrationally speaking, that relates to the environment of the movie, " explains Nashel. A soundtrack CD is in the offing.

Whatever else may be in the offing, Duotone is clearly a collaborative concept. "We're both composers, we're both producers and we're both creative directors," says Livesey, a bassist and trumpet player. Nashel is a saxophonist, and they both have the usual keyboard skills, "but it's rare for us to play on our work," says Live-sey. "There's no need when we can call upon so many great musicians."

By the same token, they hardly work alone at Duotone; other key players include composers Peter Min and Carla Carpretto, and executive producer Amy Sheldon. But the company does have a generic two-headed figure as its visual signifier. "I hope it doesn't make you want to go to the bathroom," fears Nashel. "We don't want to be known as the Bathroom Boys," moans Livesey.

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