Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Human Highway

Human Highway is the collaboration between Islands’ Nick Thorburn and Royal City-associated songwriter and solo artist Jim Guthrie. Their debut Moody Motorcycle is out next week. A little while ago we posted about two of the album tracks, hushed toe-tapper “The Sound” and HH’s foray into ’50s/’60s prom dancing, “Sleep Talking.” Today I offer up Moody Motorcyle’s catchy, road-ready, appropriately “moody” title track after my discussion with Guthrie, who goes into detail about his job writing jingles and otherwise soundtracking commercials. Importantly, he reminded me that the jingles for those My Buddy and Kid Sister dolls were “insanely catchy” and noted that he’s not so much a fan of “bright orange cheese sauce being poured over chocolate bars.”

STEREOGUM: Do you work on your own or as part of an ad agency?

JIM GUTHRIE: I work for a music production house here in Toronto.

STEREOGUM: Are you able to decide which jobs to take? Are there any products off-limits to you? I mean, avoiding cigarette ads, or whatever.

JIM GUTHRIE: You can’t really pick and choose based on products that you think are doing the world any good or not. I think you have to be comfortable with doing ads in general because at this level they are all contributing to some “evil” somewhere down the line. The only thing I try to watch is what I sing and in what context I sing it. I don’t like to sing about what the product is or does but I’ll sing what would sound like a normal song. Singing about how something makes you feel fresh and clean is an instant soul destroyer.

STEREOGUM: Have you written straight-up/ad-specfic jingles or are you more licensing pre-written tracks to different ads?

JIM GUTHRIE: 99.9% of what I do is written/scored for the ad. I’ve done a lot of ads in the last three years and I think four of them were songs of mine, two of which were for a non-profit (ALS society of Canada) and the other two were for … the opposite of non-profit! That was in the very beginning of my ad career, but I soon decided not to sell my album stuff. Now I only write new material for the ads and besides, my album stuff isn’t that “ad friendly” really.

STEREOGUM: Can you talk a bit about how the Capitol One campaign came about? How did you go about pairing your song with their imagery?

JIM GUTHRIE: Yael Staav, a video director friend of mine (who directed the brilliant ALS spots) suggested my name to the Perlorian Brothers (directors of the “Hands In My Pocket” ads) and I started conversations with them and the track director of the campaign (Ted Rosnick) about doing some demos. I got a cut of the ad with no music and I thought it looked amazing. I was still very new to writing to picture and didn’t really have any idea how to do it. Around that time I had just got an eMac and it had Garageband so I started learning how to use it. It was super easy to use and i could drag a Quicktime file of the spot into a session so I began trying to write my first “jingle” to picture. The brief was simple: Sing what you see in the ad. They also used words like “quirky,” “charming” and “energetic,” but basically they didn’t want any sub-text in the lyrics. I tried a few different things and one of them was “Hands In My Pocket.”

STEREOGUM: I saw the ALS ads. Do you have any personal connection to the disease? I mean, via friends or family. The spots are really moving.

JIM GUTHRIE: No personal connection, but as I mentioned earlier, Yael Staav directed the spots and asked if I would donate the song “Trust” to one of the spots (“Running“) and the other one entitled “Hugging” was a half written song of mine that fit perfect with her images. Those two ads were really my first experience doing ad music and I consider myself lucky to have got the chance to work with Yael and a great cause. Her work is amazing and that campaign is crushing and moving at the same time. I’ve got a few emails over the years from people with family members effected by ALS thanking me for my contribution. It was amazing to get a reaction like that and effect people in a way my records never could on their own.

STEREOGUM: You’re at work on a new theme song for Hockey Night In Canada. I took a listen at your site. How do you approach a song like this? Something that has a specific purpose. Do you listen to old Hockey Night songs? Watch a game while you write?

JIM GUTHRIE: I never use to care about or watch hockey when I was younger but over the last three years or so I’ve watched a lot of hockey. Taking a stab at a new theme isn’t really about hockey for me so much as it’s about having the opportunity to write a tune that will influence a nation for the next 40 years. I love the old Hockey Night In Canada theme song and it was really our second National Anthem. The song I submitted was a reworked recording of a riff I had laying around. I didn’t really start from scratch and think “What does hockey mean to me?” … I just wanted to submit something and that seemed like as good a place as any to start.

STEREOGUM: That leads to another question: How do you write differently when doing a song for one of your solo albums or a Human Highway track versus something for a commercial?

JIM GUTHRIE: I’ve learned that writing for an ad selling toilet paper is really no different than writing for my albums. The trick is understanding your place in relation to the piece you are trying to create. The creative process serves many therapeutic purposes. I can’t expect to work through deep, dark, personal stuff in an ad but it’s still a personal side of me in an abstract way. I really try to stay true to the music I’m trying to create and have learned it’s possible if you are able to put everything you have into what you are creating.

STEREOGUM: What’s your favorite ad jingle of all time? Or, if you can’t narrow it down, a couple…

JIM GUTHRIE: That’s a tough one because there are so many. I like a lot of the one-liner type jingles like “byyyyy Mennen!” is a pretty brilliant one. I’m also a huge fan of local or regional jingle work that may or may not be something you’d hear outside of Ontario or Canada. Examples of that would be, Fabricland, Untied Furniture Warehouse, Sleep Country, Blinds To Go, etc. They are all one line jingles that really wreak havoc on your subconscious. It doesn’t help that you’ll hear them a million times a day if you are listening to local radio/tv either. Other regular ones that come to mind are “My Buddy” and the follow up “Kid Sister” were insanely catchy.

STEREOGUM: In recent years, there’ve been some pretty interesting crossovers because of song placement in a commercial. I’m thinking of Jose
Gonzalez’s cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” in the Sony Bravia commercial, specifically, but there are a ton of others. Do you ever have these sorts of things in your mind when placing a song or writing a jingle?

JIM GUTHRIE: Well I think stuff like that goes to show how effective the marriage of music and images can be when it’s done properly specifically in ads. It also gives artists budgets to shoot a million balls bouncing down the street to create “art.” Sometimes this marriage is crap and it can make you feel gross, but ultimately I think there are a lot of interesting, beautiful ads out there. Ads and advertising have come a long way. I’d much rather watch that Sony ad then listen to a really depressing “beat” behind images of bright orange cheese sauce being poured over chocolate bars … blah, blah, blah…

STEREOGUM: Have you thought about doing soundtrack work? Maybe you and Nick could do a live score for Human Highway, the film.

JIM GUTHRIE: Ha! Yeah, that might be cool. I’ve actually scored two films in the last two years. One was a really great indie doc called The Bodybuilder And I directed by Bryan Friedman that won some awards. The other was a low-ish budget feature starring Randy Quaid and Jay Baruchel called Real Time. I’m still very new to scoring and I have a lot to learn but I’ll always jump at the chance to do it. I think a film’s score can really turn an ok movie into a masterpiece. It manipulates a film in really profound ways and tells us how to feel at times. I really can’t say enough about a good score. I will say I’m pretty proud of the page I’ve got going on the IMDB website. I hope to fill that puppy up before I die.

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Human Highway – “Moody Motorcycle” (MP3)

Moody Motorcycle is out 8/19 via Suicide Squeeze. You can stream it all at the band’s MySpace.


[Jim on the left, Nick on the right]