Antfood's Williamsburg office clearly houses four of the coolest kids in town. Wilson Brown, Sean McGovern, Spencer Casey and Pedro Botsaris work (accessible via freight elevator) comfortably in a former bookbinding factory also home to a Hasidic bakery (free Christmas cookies, weirdly) and two circus studios. Defined simply as a “creative audio studio,” Antfood creates ad music for giants like Google, the American Cancer Society and Hennessy. They make their own instruments and throw a good rooftop party, the rare combination of down-to-earth and wildly successful. This year, Creative Director/Partner Wilson Brown won the Art Director’s Club Young Guns 9 award for, among other accolades, “convention shattering.” We spoke on cross-cultural music making, innovation, and selling out.
Ella Riley Adams: First off, why the name Antfood?
Wilson Brown: We should have a better answer for this. I don’t know...we’ve always liked it. it’s somewhat endearing and, I think, memorable. It kind of seems, for at least the aesthetic of the work that we do it seems to fit to some degree.
We’ve had people who wanted to do sales or executive producer type position come in and give us this pitch of what Antfood means to them. I’ve never liked those made-up stories. I don’t have any made-up stories.
ERA: You’ve lived in Sao Paolo and New York; how do you think each place influences your sound?
WB: I think that I’ve come to a place where I’m utilizing influences from all over the world and different types of music that I listen to or perform or play. Here we curate a lot of different instruments and build our own instruments too. I think one of the things that we do well as a studio is to take accessible forms of music and use a variety of different instruments form around the world. We’re scoring a short film now and we’re doing this kind of cheesy bossa-nova-y style music, but with old drum machines from electric organs and all these analog synths — so we’re taking our North American influence and juxtaposing that back on a South American style. It’s definitely good to have both.
ERA: What kinds of instruments do you build?
WB: We’ve built acoustic instruments but the large majority of them have been synthesizers. Sometimes they’re just fun little boxes that you can make crazy sounds with and then sometimes they’re actually either replicas or emulations of older equipment that either isn’t available or is prohibitively expensive because of the heritage, I guess. Imagine like Antiques Roadshow or something. And you don’t actually want it for the value of it, you just want it to play with so you can just rebuild it yourself.
We build a lot of our rack equipment too, like our audio processing equipment, so we can kind of find...I mean that’s a little more academic but I just wrote a contribution to this book on creative block and one of my points is that when you build your own tools you have much more control of your craft, and there’s something artistic and creative about actually making the tools rather than just buying everything.
ERA: So what would you say Antfood does better than anyone else?
WB: I think what we do better than any of our other competitors, that I’m aware of at least, is that we create sound for interactive advertising and experiential advertising. To be more specific about that, I think that we have both a technical ability and a creative vision that exists beyond a thirty-second spot.
I think what we do particularly well in terms of format is creating experiences where there are either multiple layers or multiple dimensions and there’s some kind of interactive narrative, based on the audience or the user. They can experience the audio product in different ways depending on how they navigate through a website or if it’s an interactive installation, or some type of multi-dimension video project where it’s like you either choose your own adventure or do something that influences something else. So I guess new media, advertising for new media, in the realm of new media.
ERA: Do you think selling out is dead?
WB: No, I don’t think so. I just turned thirty so I was in middle school in the early 90s when grunge was coming out and there was all this super kind of angsty music that if you just read the lyrics on paper like you would never see a song like that today. I think maybe it was just my naivete and my youth but I thought that there was this horrible idea of selling out.
Now it’s funny because we primarily make music for ads, but I think the majority of the world doesn’t view what I do as selling out any more than a band would. The majority of cool bands even, their biggest win could be placement of a track in whatever; a TV spot or a big film. Which is indicative [of a shift]. I think selling out is much more accepted today and there’s less judgement towards the notion of selling out. But I wouldn’t say that it’s dead.
I think that it’s very easy to sell out and it’s a very individual concept. If you make a record and your dream is to get one of those tracks in an AT&T spot and you achieve that, you aren’t selling out if that was your goal; but I think the minute you start sacrificing your own creative ability for profit or for exposure or for whatever, than that’s still selling out and people do that every day. But sometimes people are business first and artists second, which is fine too.
ERA: What advice would you give young musicians and producers looking to get into the ad game?
WB: I think that the most important thing is to work so much and work so hard and create — not only be extremely prolific in terms of what you’re interested in doing, but also take risks and try to generate creative work outside of your comfort zone. In my vision of what we all do around here, there are two sides: there’s a technical ability side, and then there’s a creative side. Different types of people have different balances of those strengths. But no matter what your natural abilities are, the only way you can get better is if you do a lot of work. You’re going to get more technically proficient, which, actually, I believe leads into becoming creatively proficient. If you want to succeed in our industry you need to be very flexible and very competent in a lot of different styles under an extremely short deadline, with often very difficult clients who don’t have respect for the creative process [laughs].
ERA: Last question: What is the most offensive or unusable idea you’ve ever come up with?
WB: I think somebody actually did this but it wasn’t the same. It was a yogurt commercial in which the message was like anti-Osteoporosis, and it had used the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the planes hitting the two towers to illustrate...I don’t even remember what the tagline was, but the gist of it was that you can only protect what’s inside of you or something, so you should eat this yogurt so your bones are stronger than the World Trade Center, which gets knocked over by planes. The music direction was something along the lines of ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M. I liked the boldness of it, but it would not fly.