David Bowie, The Eurythmics, Goggle, Nike, Mike Weir, The Toronto Blue Jays, Our Lady Peace, Giorgio Armani– Creative Strategist Byron Wong believes that no matter what the subject – the key to delivering quality content is in the storytelling. As host and co-producer of CityTV’s The NewMusic from 1997-1999, Byron pioneered both in depth and irreverent interviews allowing him to engage artists such as David Bowie and the Eurythmics in a poignant way. His love for the creative process behind the camera would change the course of his career and in 1999 he co-founded Blue Spark, a company that would became one of Canada’s premiere web and e-commerce development companies. 2011 saw the launch of zero11zero, a company dedicated to the convergence of motion media, new media, music, artist development, publishing and creative strategy. Recent projects and clients include the Toronto Blue Jays, Maclaren Momentum/Nuit Blanche, +tongtong, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Titanfall, and Armani
Byron also serves as Managing Director for nVoid Art Tech Ltd, who have developed interactive processes and controls for projects with Nike, Google, Under Armor, and Kanye West. As a music and TV/media producer, he has worked with The Crystal Method, The Eurythmics, David Usher, Delerium, David Bowie, Beck, Ben Harper, and many others. Other work includes albums with Montreal’s Hexes and Ohs, Winhara, Tyler Yarema, Roger Mooking, and production with and for Glenn Morrison, Lange, Mendo/PetShopBoys, Bernard Sumner of New Order. Recent work includes mixes for The Sheepdogs, City and Colour,Yukon Blonde, hip-hop artist, Kendrick Lamar, Frankie Whyte and collaborations with Duncan Coutts of Our Lady Peace and Dave Hamelin of the Stills and Eight and a Half.
Byron was nominated for a Genie for his work scoring Lie With Me and was co-nominated for another Genie for Best Original Song for the film, Poor Boy’s Game. He scored and served as co producer for the feature film “Off World”. He produced the 2013 ProMax Sports Media Award nominated documentary “4 Days in April” about Canadian golfer, Mike Weir and is currently in production with “Meza”, a fictional action-based feature, directed by James Mark and “Ill Intentions”, a documentary based in the Yukon, Canada – marking Byron’s directorial debut.
Byron, thank you for taking a moment to speak with us today. You have worn many hats over the years, music producer, songwriter, TV personality, entrepreneur and marketing guru. How would you define yourself?
Thank you for asking me! I like to define myself as a Creative Strategist; and I help tell stories.
You founded Random Media Core Inc. in 1993, a Canadian company dedicated to music, design, marketing and new media. What did the words “new media” mean then and how has it changed since you first entered the market?
New media was a catch-all phrase that essentially meant “not traditional media” – which was at the time television, radio and print. The biggest change to new media in the last several years is socially-driven media or ‘social media’ – where the gatekeeping of information (news, technology, events, etc) and the taste-making of art (music, design,etc) are now in the hands of the many. Those channels are still in the control of the few (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc). But the driving forced behind them and what ultimately makes those channels valuable is there is an infinitely wider base of gatekeepers and content creators than ever before. We have never had so many have the potential to share and inform with so many, ever before,
You were both host and co-producer of City TV’s The NewMusic. Which role was more satisfying, in front of or behind the camera?
Behind the camera for sure. Staying out of the way, so to speak, helps tell a compelling story; and guiding from a place and perspective that is connected but not overtly intrusive. A presence on camera is another significant story influencer- the voice tone, wardrobe, haircut, etc of the host/interviewer has a huge influence on the perception of the information the viewing audience is receiving.
Having said that, I recognize that the impact of having a direct physical proximity can positively affect a story. Conversations are more natural and if there is a connection occurring between the people on screen, it is very obvious. I think my best work with the New Music occurred when I was part of the story, quirks and all. Today, I think it would not be so.
How did the celebrity of hosting The New Music affect or change you?
It was fun for about a month, being recognized and ‘celebrated’ for being somewhat notable or on television, and so on. But the truth is that it changes your perception of yourself and how you interact with the world. In many cases, I have seen great broadcast personalities do very well by that – they are always on point and in character on and off set.
But for me, the artistry is in the doing, not the end product. The ‘doing’ was a part of my everyday life, not just my time on camera. So if my moody, crazy, frenetic, artistic side came out, I felt I was being true to my personality, but not always holding up the presumed or expected personality of the on-screen persona.
I had three very important things occurring at once – The New Music, running my companies and producing music. Something had to go. It was an easy choice and by far the best choice for many reasons – mostly for Canadian audiences:
When I decided to give notice, I walked over to the Edge/CFNY on Yonge Street and told a lovely fellow I knew there that I thought he should replace me. I told him he is the best radio personality I know, the smartest interviewer I know, and the only person in the country that I would like to be interviewed by. We talked about it for an hour and then I went back to Much to tell them I found my replacement. That is how George Stromboulopoulos got on TV.
You pioneered both in-depth and irreverent interviews and presentations of music, culture, celebrity and technology. Who was your most memorable interview?
The New Music, and many of its journalists before me really pioneered the notions of ‘in-depth’ and irreverence. People like Kim Clarke Champniss and producer John Marshall really gave me the inspiration and latitude to push in interviews.
Some of the more memorable: David Bowie – we shared Chinese birth signs and tattoo stories. Beck – because he was simply so lovely and cool and I got to do a bit of break-dancing with him in NYC. The Eurythmics – they played three songs acoustically and I was the only audience, along with the camera crew – Author Neil Gaiman, who did his first televised Canadian interview with me. Years later, he directly helped to name one of my children.
The production of the documentary’ Ill Intentions’ marked your directorial debut. Can you tell us a little about the story?
A few years in the making now. My dear friend and cinematographer, Justin Lovell suggested I join him to shoot an event in the Yukon. That single suggestion really helped to re-shape my entire world. The people up there, who have become great friends, are some of the most inspiring and dedicated human beings I have ever met. They are changing their lives and those in their community through break dance, art and music. It reaffirmed my commitment to the B-boy culture and to what is important in my life.
How do you choose which projects you will work on?
I am more careful now than ever before. I seldom chose to do anything where financial gain is the main factor. The few times I have, it didn’t work out as well as hoped.
I realized that what I do as an ‘artist’ is not music or film or design. What I do is engage. The engagement is the art process and the art piece. I challenge myself to do as many new things as possible, sometime simultaneously. I have ‘To Learn’ tattooed on my back. It is what I endeavor to do professionally and personally for a lifetime.
Do you have a favorite type of work?
I categorize what I do as “Creative Strategy”. This means (to me) that I find ways to take a process or an idea further – augmenting the path that is being taken by a collaborator, partner, client, artist, brand, etc. And it is that same notion that has allowed me to help build some really great new companies like nVoid Art Tech. My partner and collaborator in that company, Elburz Sorkhabi, is a brilliant designer and engineer. The trick lately has been to work with people who are simply better and more talented than I am ! Its taken years, but I have a team that really represents that notion.
My favorite thing in the world to do is to join a process or team and bring something more to it. I call it ‘train jumping” – jumping on a train that is moving already to bring some potentially minor or possibly drastic refinement. It ultimately comes down to what I’ve learned from B-boy culture – take the best parts of things, mix them up, remix them again and take the best parts of that to a new place.
Do you have a favorite genre of music? What is on your iPod these days?
Ambient electro-acoustic music is my favorite music in the world. Lately I have been listening to everything from M83 to the Empty Set to Vangelis to the Frozen Soundtrack (kids).
As a music and TV/Media producer, you have worked with The Eurythmics, David Bowie, Beck, Ben Harper, and many others. Can you share a candid celebrity moment with us?
I showed David Bowie my tattoo and in turn he showed me his. I didn’t realize he had NEVER shown that to anyone in broadcast media before – pretty amazing. A couple of months later he told the management at Much Music to say hello to me and that he really enjoyed our time together. That was even more amazing!
Earlier I mentioned that Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics played several songs for me acoustically. I was about 3.5 feet away from Annie Lennox and the only audience they were playing to. I had to focus on not crying or passing out as her voice is so much a part of my upbringing.
Making records with Roger Mooking, David Usher, The Crystal Method really brought me some of my favorite creative moments – nothing specific, but an emotional and creative warmth and sentiment that I tap into still. And they have all become some of my favorite people.
Beck – just the coolest dude and so thoughtful. By chance his brother randomly turned up in Toronto, came into our office and started working with us. We had no idea of the connection.
Ben Harper – truly magic. We worked and hung out together for a couple days – and we bought a guitar together. During a concert, he played one of my all time favorite songs “Please Please Me Like You Want To” and dedicated it to me. After the show he insisted we have a few minutes to chat alone – it was his birthday. He called me later that year to wish me a Merry Christmas!
You were nominated for a Genie for your work scoring “Lie With Me” and co-nominated for another Genie for Best Original Song for the film, “Poor Boy’s Game”. Did the nominations bring new opportunity to you?
I had a rather poor experience with scoring Film and TV in my younger days and it honestly resulted in me not liking nor trusting many of the people I was working with at the time. I just didn’t believe in where they were coming from artistically and emotionally. They just didn’t seem to have what was best for the project in mind – it was ‘just get it done!’
Many years later, my friend Clement Virgo, who is a well respected and a very dedicated director, approached me to score his film, ‘Lie with Me’ and later, ‘Poor Boys Game’. I was interested in working with him and his producer Damon D’Olivera. It was not just about working on music for film. It was about the relationship. The relationship is what really matters -having a common vocabulary and voice. I have been offered several things since then and turned most of them down. They didn’t feel like the right fit.
When producing music for a motion picture or documentary, how do you balance the producers/directors vision with your own?
Carefully. I try to only work with people I feel I have a well sorted vocabulary with.
From producing music for artists to scoring movies, how did this evolution happen?
It’s about storytelling. Whether it is producing a three minute pop song, scoring a 90 minute film, or directing or producing a documentary or helping to design an immersive, interactive piece for Nuit Blanche or Kanye West – its all the same process, just different variables. Even when working with a large brand like Armani or supporting Crystal Method in the studio or on the road – it’s all the same thing. You must try to understand their legacy, their goals and the many options and limitations that influence how to achieve those goals.
How has your time in front of the camera prepared you for the role of Director?
Most of what I direct is documentary based. I am always conscious of the energy the people in front of the camera have and how invasive a camera can be. It’s the same when doing panels or live interviews. It always surprises me how impressive and interesting people are in the small ways. They may be big celebrities, but it’s the little jokes or stories they tell -these are the things I love the most. My time with Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad and with Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays come to mind.
However, my favorite thing to do behind the camera is produce. I love having the ability to find a process and technique that will allow directors to accomplish a story – be it a documented one or a fantastical one. I have been working with several excellent directors on projects for the Blue Jays, golfer Mike Weir (Kevin Foley), the Titan Fall video game (William Chang) and a very ambitious feature film called Meza (James Mark). Seeing these come together and being able to build a team around it is the most incredible thing.
You are a collector of audio technology. When did your love for gear begin?
It began when I moved to Toronto as a teen. I started interning for an icon in the broadcast world named David Pritchard. He was kind enough to let me learn engineering in his studio but it was really his encouragement to tell stories that was the most influential. I had a cheap sampler and would do little productions for the bands that would come into the studio. They couldn’t pay me, so they would give me ‘old’ gear – drum machines, analogue synths, etc.I became really fascinated with what was happening in the UK electronic scene in the early 90s and recognized that all of these ‘crappy’ drum machines and synths were going to be the future so I started collecting as much as I could. I funded my first company partly by selling little synths I would buy for $12 for as much as $2000 a few years later. The economics around that was secondary to the form, function and fun aspect of the gear. I love the quirks, the tactility. I still do.
Do you collect recent technology or vintage pieces?
I would say I don’t collect any more. I only buy what I will use in a project. Having said that, I have become way too fascinated with modular synthesizers lately and that is growing a bit out of control.
Do you have a passion for certain technology? If so why?
I have a passion for an engagement. That includes well-designed and sometimes poorly designed technology – both can produce an interesting result. If I can’t make a connection quickly with technology or specifically a piece of equipment, I move on much faster these days.
Which pieces of gear are essential to your role as a producer and engineer?
My nice chair, my computer, a decent set of monitors, a robust hard drive 🙂
But I do love several hardware pieces. I truly truly love the UAD plugins. The UAD plugins were used all over the mixes we did for the Sheepdogs, City and Colour,
Kendrick Lamar, Roger Mooking, Frankie Whyte and the Dead Idols, Our Lady Peace and many more. All were mixed through an SSL X-rack summing mixer and Bus Compressor.
The UAD’s were used extensively in the “4 Days in April” documentary on Mike Weir, that was nominated for a ProMax Sports Marketing Best Documentary award and for the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays Campaign, which won top honours at the ProMax BDA Awards.
The Manley Massive Passive and Vari Mu are always part of the mix chain and the Vox Box is oddly my favourite bass pre amp of all time. We have been acquiring more Royer mics lately for Metric to use, and my Coles mics are never very far away.
What are the UAD plugins that you couldn’t live without?
All of them. Ampex Tape is on everything I do. There are many – Dimension D, Transient designer, Brainworx EQ, the Limiter, the 224 reverb and now, the Culture Vulture. The 1176 emulations are amazing. The Space Echo…its crazy how good they are.
Do you have any “go to” gear when recording/mixing?
The Blue strip 1176, a set of original PulTec EQs. I have been using an API pre a lot lately.
But I mostly use what is already turned on and plugged in!
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Fatherhood. I am a ‘new’ junkie – always on the look out for change, interesting ideas, evolution, stories – and for all of that and so much more, there is nothing better than having children. They bring all of that in abundance everyday. On a professional level, finding the team I have. It has taken years, but it has been so worth it.
If you could go back and change anything about your career, what would it be?
A few choices on how I spent my time and resources I would have done differently. But honestly, so few regrets. That’s the best part of really enjoying the process, even when its a tough one. Someone asked me the other day what I would do if I won a 50 million dollar lottery.I honestly had to say that nothing would change in terms of how I spend my time and energy. I would get a new fridge though.
What advice can you give an aspiring music professional?
Do you really need to do this as a career?! Lol. A long time back I was asked to give some advice to emerging musicians. I simply said that if at all possible, do not try to make your art for money. Do something else that can bring in money and then do your music for you. As soon as your accept money as part of the equation, you accept other peoples standards, criticism, expectations, and so on.Sometimes that can be a great thing, sometimes that can kill an artist.
One of the most prolific and incredible artists I know, Travino, is living in Ottawa working a decent day job and raising a lovely family. His down time is so well used and his output is better than almost any full-time musician I know. It’s not just how much he gets done, but the quality of it. It inspires and humbles me. www.travinomusic.com
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a bunch of songs with Nashville-based singer songwriter, Ari Lyon. He is an amazing human being. The fact that is he is a great songwriter and performer is secondary. I just finished co-producing with Duncan Coutts an album for Frankie Whyte and the Dead Idols – Incredible band – storming live! I also remixed Our Lady Peace – love them so much!
I am collaborating with and corralling a number of talented people for the Meza Film Soundtrack – Dave Hamelin of the Still and Eight and Half, Jimmy Shaw from Metric, The Crystal Method, Solid State Death Machine and Human.exe.
We are completing the Meza film and finalizing some new strategic designs for a number of really innovative technology and entertainment companies.
I just completed a huge project as the consulting lead creative and strategic director for Giorgio Armani.
We were part of the design team that just launched a large scale immersive installation in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
I am currently launching a new initiative with our Green Screen shooting facility.
Most importantly, my beautiful wife and I are growing our family.
What is next for you?
Hopefully sleep… Not going to happen 🙂
Follow Byron Wong on Twitter https://twitter.com/byronkentwong/media
Interview by Anne Joyce: The AnR Group email@example.com
HHB Communication Canada www.hhbcanada.com