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Matt Sherman: “Music Opens the Door to a World of Creativity”


Zambezi’s group creative director tells LBB’s Adam Bennett what makes music such a powerful tool for storytellers

Matt Sherman: “Music Opens the Door to a World of Creativity”

Without music, creativity would not be the same. Whether it’s a rhythm and cadence provided in the background, or the transcendent emotions music can push to the foreground, so much of our creative history is linked to music and its unique ability to communicate directly with our senses. 

It’s that link which this new interview series, supported by SoStereo and inspired by their What About the Music podcast, sets out to explore. Over the coming months, we’ll be speaking to high-profile industry figures about how music has influenced their relationship with their craft, and get their take on the process of marring melody to creativity. 

Today, we hear from Zambezi’s group creative director Matt Sherman. Music has been a driving force throughout Matt’s career to date, whether it be sparking the ‘explosions’ in his mind which drew him to a career in creativity, or providing the soundtrack for the ads that stick out in his memory. Here, Matt reflects on why “idiosyncratic” music choices can often be the most impactful, and how TikTok is fundamentally changing music’s cultural impact… 

LBB> Matt, let’s start at the beginning - what kind of a kid were you growing up, and what role did music have in your early creative life? 

Matt> Well, I first started to think of myself as ‘a creative’ around the time I was in high school. I realised then that I was better at writing than anything else - and it was at that point that so many things started to explode in my brain, all at once. I graduated High School in 1996, when MTV was still a big deal. You had the breakthrough of alternative rock in music, and that was just such a magical moment of awakening for me. It was just like, “yeah, this is for me”. 

At that same time, Tarantino films first start to break through into the mainstream of popular culture. The way that music is so crucial was mesmerising to me. I was reading interviews, subscribing to magazines, trying to get hold of any piece of information I could. I grew up in a very rural area in Florida, so it felt incredibly exciting. 

That was where my relationship with music got serious. I was desperate to get my hands on the likes of Jane’s Addiction and PJ Harvey. Soon after that, we saw the rise of Spike Jonze and this acceptance that music videos could be incredible pieces of art all on their own. So all of that is a slightly long-winded way of saying that, for me, music opened up the doors to a world of creativity. I’ll always owe it for that. 

Above: The legendary music videos of Spike Jonze were an early creative influence for Matt. 

LBB> It’s interesting how you talk about the combination of music with visuals, be it in Tarantino’s films or Spike Jonze’s music videos. How important of a tool do you think music is for a storyteller? 

Matt> Oh, it’s huge. To continue with the Tarantino example, something remarkable about his use of music is how unexpected his choices are. Inglorious Basterds has this unforgettable scene soundtracked by an effortlessly cool Bowie song which is so idiosyncratic to a Nazi movie - but it totally elevates it. It gives me chills. There are a few moments like that in cinema and in advertising where I just wonder how on earth they got the all-clear from a studio or a brand to use a piece of music, where it works because of its sheer surprise. 

Above: David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ provides one of many memorable moments from Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’. 

Of course, the history of motion picture is full of classic needle drops that have become so iconic they’re almost like cultural punchlines - Top Gun Maverick is probably a great recent example of that. 

LBB> So how would you describe the relationship between music and what you do day-to-day at Zambezi?

Matt> It has an obvious practical role, in that we’re always looking for the right piece of music to accompany our work. As creative director, I’m usually looking to help shape the work of my colleagues and so I find music to be a really helpful tool in that process. But, more holistically, there are still times when I have to simply sit and write - and I’ll always listen to music when doing so. It helps me to overcome that daunting task of looking at a blank page. 

A lot of times it’s comfort, where I’ll treat myself to a listen through of a Slowdive album that I love. But, really, it’s a way of tricking myself into being creative. 

LBB> And does the type of music you’re listening to at any given time have an impact on the kind of creativity you produce? 

Matt> 100%. Sometimes the brief can dictate what I want to listen to. There was one occasion when, tasked with coming up with something ‘epic’, I’ve sat and listened to Kanye’s Runaway on repeat for an hour to get into that headspace. There’s something inherently epic about the song’s tone and its beat, it can’t help but transport you. 

Above: Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ helped inspire Matt to create more ‘epic’ work for clients.

There was one occasion where, together with my creative partner, I was trying to come up with an idea for a Volkswagen ad. Sometimes the music comes much later in the process, but on this occasion there was a song that immediately jumped out as perfect. 

The hook was that they were launching a convertible in February. So our idea was that you see a guy in a store with a ski mask. Everyone assumes he’s about to rob the place, but he’s actually just walking around shopping. As he walks out of the store his buddies are in the convertible and they’re all in ski masks, too. As we were talking through the potential script, it became obvious that the iconic Trololo song was going to be a perfect fit. It was so out-there and bizarre, but it hit the tone we were looking for just right. 

Above: Matt’s work with Volkswagen lent into a surprising song choice to convey its comedic tone. 

LBB> That’s fantastic - are there any other examples of music in ads which have inspired you?

Matt> Well, this is an obvious one but given we were talking about idiosyncratic song choices I feel I have to mention the Cadbury Gorilla. I mean, talk about a brand having faith in a song choice! It’s so weird, so bizarre, yet so perfect at the same time. 

Every detail of that ad blows my mind - right down to that sense of raw passion with the drumming. This isn’t Neil Peart forensically mastering his drum kit, this is pure, unadulterated synchronisity with the tone of the song and, I think, how we all feel when we hear it. Who can honestly say they haven’t air drummed to that song? 

Above: Juan Cabral and Fallon London’s legendary ‘Gorilla’ ad for Cadbury’s is a fine example of a brand being rewarded for faith in an idiosyncratic song choice, says Matt. 

LBB> Is there anything which frustrates you about the way our industry deals with music today?

Matt> It’s not really my place to critique it - I can’t read music, I don’t play an instrument, and I’ll often embarass myself by using the wrong terminology when I talk to someone from a music house. For me it’s always been an organic process of finding people with whom I can have a conversation, and exploring different options for music. 

Something which I do find quite challenging, however, is this sense of everything I need to be keeping on top of. TikTok is often changing what certain songs mean in any given cultural context, and you need to be aware of how that stuff is altering the way songs are perceived. 

But I don’t mean to sound too much like an old man shaking his fist at a cloud. When the Kate Bush stuff first flared up with Stranger Things, my first reaction was excitement for the kids discovering her amazing music for the first time. 

LBB> And, on a final note, what music are you listening to at the moment? 

Matt> So, fittingly enough given my last answer, I’ve been listening to Beabadoobee having spent enough time scrolling through TikTok. She’s really fantastic and exciting to listen to. I also think one of the most interesting artists today is the Weeknd. He’s a pop mastermind. 

Above: Trawling through TikTok to stay ahead of the curve has opened up access to young artists like Beabadoobee.

There are classics I tend to go back to - I run the gamut from Beach House to Slowdive. I’m excited by older bands who have a second life and put out new music. And, finally, the new Kendrick from earlier this year has been on my Spotify non-stop. If your playlists have a mix between your comfortable tracks and stuff which challenges you, I think you’re always going to be in a good place. 

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Genres: People

SoStereo, Mon, 22 Aug 2022 07:14:00 GMT