San Diego's underground music scene has been a hotbed for years. Sure, the nation's close-knit indie rock circuit has heard it. Now, however, Joe Q. Public will hear a strain of it-even if he's unaware-as San Diego musicians are becoming a hot commodity in the advertising world.
This infiltration is being led by Singing Serpent. Founded in April 2000, the downtown company uses top local musicians to design sound and compose music for regional and national commercials.
Which means San Diego indie rockers are sculpting the new soundtrack for the American Jingle.
- The drummer for local heavy metal revivalists, Lovelight Shine, anchors the recent spots for Saturn's SUV-the one with the lynx chasing a mini version of the car through the snow.
- JC2000 of Rocket from the Crypt did a little Dick Dale meets “New York, New York” trumpet work for Barona ads.
- Maquiladora's Phil Beaumont is the official voice of Virgin Megastores.
- The dittie behind questia.com's commercials is Pinback's Zach Smith.
One has to wonder how large corporations and experimental musicians could ever find themselves on the same page.
“When we started out, we could count on losing the job. We used to err on the side of weirdness,” explains co-founder Rafter Roberts.
Emily Joyce, who coordinates accounts (and is also Rafter's partner in the wacky love-rock duo, Bunky), says having “creatives” do edgy stuff is important to keep them inspired. “But sometimes,” she explains, “we'll run into a situation where the creative loves it and the client is like, ‘What?! We can't use this-it's a family car.”
Because of such situations, Rafter explains, “now we tell [clients], ‘We get it, and here's some interesting ways to accomplish it. Here are some safe bets, and here are some outside shots.'”
Tony Burket, Creative Director for Mission Valley-based advertising agency, Campbell-Mithun, has worked extensively with Singing Serpent. For the San Diego Zoo's “Goodbye Hua Mei” campaign, Burket had the studio re-record a version of Gregory Isaac's “Good Bye Love.”
“What I like about their approach is that... they're pretty prolific. You'll get different musical composers and compositions-it's pretty unusual,” Burket explains. “They have a great love for music. And they'll throw some off-the-wall ideas in there-some of the ideas are pretty shocking.”
Roberts and his partner, Glen Galloway, are longtime San Diego musicians. Roberts has played with everyone from Black Heart Procession to Album Leaf, and now sings and plays guitar for Bunky. Galloway led '90s art rock band Truman's Water and currently fronts Soul-Junk.
In addition to serving as jingle central, local bands like GoGoGo Airheart, The Album Leaf and Kill Me Tomorrow have recorded their own stuff at Serpent's 4000-square-foot, state-of-the-art recording facility.
Consisting of seven full-time employees, including four in-house composers and a few part-time composers, Serpent's most distinguishing characteristic is its close ties to San Diego's best musicians.
“There's a great devotion to utilizing local talent,” explains in-house composer Arabella Harrison, who also plays bass and sings in the local rock band, the and/ors. “Some are in bands, some are just talented San Diegans who have the desire to sing or play.”
Harrison says clients give her requests like: ‘Make it sound kinda like the hero,' or ‘It's got to have a lot of emotionality here' or even ‘Make it classic, yet modern.'
“It's difficult to talk music with someone who doesn't know much about music,” she explains. “Ad people are wildly creative and imaginative, but they use visual and emotional terminology when explaining their ideas.”
Where they were first rejected, Singing Serpent is now getting compliments. Galloway says clients tell him “that we give them way more options than they usually get. There's usually an obvious music direction given to any spot and we hit that, but we also give people choices they only get by licensing something off somebody's album.”
This is a far cry from the days when Roberts and Galloway competed for space with dirty laundry in the cramped quarters of Roberts' home studio. Hash Vyas from GoGoGo Airheart recalls the first days of the “professional studio” in downtown.
“It was a mess... demolition was the only thing happening for the first few months. There was drywall and dust everywhere.
“We had a lot of help,” chuckles Roberts. “I'd call up every band I've ever worked with and see if they wanted to have a party.
‘‘What kind of party?' they would ask.
“‘A shoveling party!'”
After “a ton” of such parties, the studio is now completed. With jobs secured for national Mercedes and Chrysler commercials, Singing Serpent may have found reason to really celebrate.