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Commercial Success 

Off pop music's radar for eight years, San Francisco's Voice Farm has slipped into the background of background music

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
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Poppin' Fresh, aka the Pillsbury Doughboy, is burdened. Weighted. Encumbered. Slowly, he trundles his 8-3/4-inch, 14-ounce frame across the floor of a suburban kitchen, carrying a dinner roll on his back.

That's the setup for the latest TV ad for Pillsbury's Grand Crescent Rolls. The Chicago-based advertising firm Leo Bur-nett Co. has commissioned San Fran- cisco's Charly Brown & Co. to provide the soundtrack.

"Light dinner jazz," says Myke Reilly, explaining the musical concept for the ad. Reilly and Brown are the two-person staff responsible for creating incidental music for hundreds of commercials. They've been going about this business quietly for well over 10 years. Selling underwear? Soy sauce? Charly Brown & Co. can help.

Once upon a time, Brown and Reilly were semifamous. In the early '80s, the pair formed the synth-pop group Voice Farm. Steeped in club-ready dance hooks and Brown's rich, warm vocals, their music was the center of what they considered to be a theatrical extravaganza, from dancers and costume changes onstage to arty video projections. A handful of releases on the Residents' Ralph Records had brought the two a measure of success by the early '90s: Singles like "Free Love," "Super EQ Team," "Johnny Belinda," and "Seeing Is Believing" were all local hits, and "Seeing Is Believing" hit No. 8 on the Billboard dance singles chart, while People swooned that "Free Love" was "1991's best party record." That year, Brown and Reilly inked a deal with Morgan Creek Records, an offshoot of a Hollywood film company that had money to throw around. The label released Voice Farm's best album, Bigger Cooler Weirder -- a fair assessment, considering the simplicity of their earlier work. The band earned a slot opening for Depeche Mode at the Cow Palace and Madison Square Garden when Depeche Mode's biggest album, Violator, was on the shelves. Voice Farm songs were staples on Live 105, national distribution was in place, and major success was not an unreasonable expectation.

Then Voice Farm all but disappeared. Blame Bryan Adams. Just as Bigger Cooler Weirder hit the streets, the film arm of Morgan Creek was getting set to release the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It went looking for synergy -- and found it in "Everything I Do, I Do It for You," the soundtrack's putrid single, which would be jackhammered into the public consciousness throughout the summer of 1991. The bulk of Morgan Creek's promotional energies went into "Everything I Do," which left Voice Farm in the lurch. "The consensus was, 'Yeah, why put money into this experimental San Francisco band?'" says Reilly. "After all those years of working and developing our act ... it was sort of a hard blow. So I guess I lost my faith in the music industry."

Brown calls the Morgan Creek experience "a gruesome period," when phone calls went unreturned and the band went unpromoted. Eventually, Brown and Reilly simply let their contract expire. (It wasn't their first industry headache; in the mid-'80s, they'd been signed to A&M and then summarily dropped without releasing a record.) Ultimately, Morgan Creek Records dissolved in 1993, leaving a legacy of bands who felt burned by the label: Mary's Danish, Janis Ian, Little Feat, and Miracle Legion are among the groups who've complained about poor treatment while they were signed there.

But unlike those bands, Voice Farm has pretty much given up on the traditional music industry entirely; both Reilly, 38, and Brown, 45, say they will never perform live again. Actually, they got the idea of doing commercial work in the mid-'80s, when the barbershop chain SuperCuts, hearing "Super EQ Team," approached the band with an offer of work. Since then, Reilly and Brown have assembled an eclectic list of corporate clients, producing ambient background music for Kikkoman Soy Sauce and Levi's 501 Jeans, cool bop for Macy's, driving, upbeat pop for Microsoft's Windows 98 launch, clanging song snippets for MTV "bumpers" (video art shown between commercials and the programming proper), and an installation for Samsung's world headquarters in South Korea, where their music plays in an electronic "garden" 24 hours a day. Closer to home, the pair have created music for trailers for the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and for the Gap's undergarment ads and in-house training videos. They also produced the eerie, ethereal background music for "Gnomon" -- an exhibit featuring a beguiling 8-foot-high moving blob -- at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1996.

"We've always made fun of and enjoyed pop culture, so it seemed like a natural turn of events," says Brown. The Voice Farm studio is a nondescript one; the building itself is nestled near the heart of the SOMA club district, shadowed by live-work lofts and warehouses, and the work space is a clean, almost clinical arrangement of synthesizers, mixing boards, a video setup, and a computer on which most of the musical work is done. Creating music for a television commercial such as the Pillsbury ad takes approximately two weeks, a process that involves back-and-forths with the corporation, ad agency, or commercial director, and assembling musicians for recording; Ken Weller, who played bass and guitar for the old Voice Farm albums and live shows, still comes in to work on projects.

"It's much more stable," says Reilly of commercial work, as opposed to dealing with record labels. "The people are appreciative, they return your phone calls. In many instances it's much more creative because people come to us for creativity. Whereas with the music industry -- once you really get in there, once you get into the mainstream music industry -- you're either on the trend, you're either doing grunge when grunge is happening, or you're off the boat. Period. As I got older, I wanted to have legitimate business relationships with people, and the music industry is just completely unstable."

"I think that, of course, Voice Farm was more of a true expression of our personal lifestyles and aesthetic," he adds. "Sometimes commercial music is, sometimes it's not. We've been very lucky in that we've had a lot of creative projects."

"When you're doing commercial work," adds Brown, "you act like a cultural sieve. You assess what the project is, you select from the gamut that's available, and then funnel it back in. It's creative, yes, but not as creative as doing one's personal creative project, of course."

The two still make music as Voice Farm -- full-blown songs, the kind they made when record labels and local radio were paying attention. And in many ways, the music hasn't changed: It's still synth-pop, focused on love's darker corners ("My Stained Sheets," "Mystery Date," "Atomic Sex Hippie"), but thanks to technology, the band's newer material is much fuller, integrating both orchestral and dissonant sounds into what remain catchy, R&B-rooted pop songs. Clearly, spending years trying to get their musical point across in 30 seconds or less has taught them something.

Thus far, the songs are available only as sound clips on the Voice Farm Web site (www.voicefarm.com), but Brown and Reilly are -- with no small amount of trepidation -- preparing to look into a CD release. Uninterested in releasing the record themselves ("It's kind of like going back 10 years," says Reilly), they're shopping it to labels. "We're starting that routine again," says Brown, sighing and laughing at the same time. "The old five-song demo CD and all that."

But he's adamant that his and Reilly's tiptoe move into the mainstream music world doesn't mean their commercial work is a compromise or sellout. "It's keeping us alive so that we don't have to do shit jobs to do the music," he says. "That's really what it is."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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