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Thinking in Sound: Never Losing Focus with HENRYBOY's Bill Chesley


How after 30 years, the sound designer is doing his best work

Thinking in Sound: Never Losing Focus with HENRYBOY's Bill Chesley

In 2008, Kate Gibson left Amber Music to set up HENRYBOY, a sound design company with Bill Chesley.

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Bill> When I begin work on something, and throughout the process, I find it very helpful to ask myself: "What am I trying to achieve? What best serves the idea? What is the overall intent?" These questions help me stay focused. I think one outcome of this approach is a lower track count and a more purposeful use of the sonic space.


LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Bill> While I have collaborated with people in the past, overall I’m a lone gun, and like it that way. I think I get freaked out by my 'lack of process'. I find that if I’m too conscious of another persons opinions while trying to formulate an idea, I freeze up. I come at things from a million different directions - things just pop into my head when I work - it’s chaotic, and hard to explain, but I guess it works. I’ve been at it for 30 years.


LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Bill> Sound is a pretty abstract subject. Most people don’t have a very clear idea how to discuss it - how to articulate their ideas relative to the visual. I think I’ve become a pretty good communicator of what I do, and I think most people exit the first zoom call with a confidence in me that I find very gratifying. Kate - my producer/partner - and I have become very good at creating a positive experience, and breaking the process down in such a way that is clear and usually pretty concise. Talking the talk, and walking the walk, is very satisfying.


LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Bill> The basic gist of what I’ve been doing for so long has not changed. I think the sounds, the Implementation of sounds in a context, is still the most important thing. If you don’t nail the brief, in the eyes - and ears - of the client, you’re done before you’ve started.

Saying that, things like UGC (user generated content) vis-à-vis TikTok, and other social media platforms, have influenced some of our projects. I’ve been tasked with doing foley on some actual UGC, and then degrading the sound to make it match the lousy quality of a doorbell cam. It’s kinda fun. ASMR, which has a  massive presence on YouTube, has been popping up a fair amount lately, and we’ve done several projects that incorporate that idea into campaigns.

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Bill> Terrence Malick, Bill Viola, Christian Marclay, Alan Splet. They all changed the way I think about things.

LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Bill> The range of work I get makes this tough to answer - some jobs are straight forward, and maybe require some well thought out foley/ambience work, while others are more impressionistic and really push your creative juices.

I have a large aggregate of hero sound designers, but two people that really influenced my approach to the work I do in advertising are Michelle Curran, my boss at Amber music where I worked for 10 years, and Stephen Dewey, owner/sound designer at Machinehead, where I worked for four years. Anyone who knows advertising knows these two names. They were - still are - the coolest, the most respected. Their opinions really mattered, back in the days before 'content'. They were real advocates of my early career, and taught me to be bold and stick to my guns. Real pioneers.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Bill> I wish I could listen to music while doing sound design, but it doesn’t work. I know that’s a weird thing to wish for, but hey. Also, the songs would leak into the foley.


LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Bill> Marshall Mcluhan said 'the medium is the message'. That idea still holds a lot of water. How something is presented only matters when it works. Great sound system, shit idea- who cares about the sound system?

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Bill> Hmm - I start with granola and yogurt, so I guess I start with a soft crunch? I don’t know. I take it all in. I listen a lot. I always carry a little Sony d10 around with me just in case. Kate and I watch A LOT of movies - Criterion Channel has become an obsession. Great films always inspire.

LBB> Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take?

Bill> I currently have a little over two terabytes of sounds in my Sound Miner archive. It is a collection of my sounds, and libraries I’ve collected over the years. Somewhat to my chagrin, I haven’t massively 'metadated' my stuff, so It’s a little all over the place - but I remember things. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can, for example, remember an ambience I recorded in New Paltz in 2011 because it has a car  drive by in it that would be perfect for the thing I happen to be working on. You might say my memory is less than sound, but I have sound memories.


LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

Bill> I am really interested in process. I love Peter Jackson’s documentary on the Beatles. How people make things and come up with things and ideas is fascinating.


LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Bill> As I’ve already said, I always have recorders on me, and Kate and I do a lot of traveling around, so we end up recording a lot of stuff when we’re out and about. We recorded the Brighton (England) seafront last summer with a seismic mic I bought off a company called LOM. The mic's called GEOFON - its a mic you can stick in the ground, or to a bridge with a magnetic adapter, or suction to a window - kinda like a contact mic with an emphasis on low end - really cool. Get one.

That’s really what excites me. New ways to do old things, and then applying those things to projects. Very, very satisfying.

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

Bill> There are a lot more sound designers - good, young, beautiful, hungry, sound designers - out there than there were years ago - which makes this already relatively esoteric world that much more challenging. I actually enjoy this reality, and hope that people new to the business get to realise the success I’ve had without being stomped out by things like AI. Thankfully, HENRYBOY’s still pretty busy. I actually think I’m doing some of my best work. I still get very amped when I get new work - I fecking love it, and I’ll work until the wheels fall off. So to all you youngsters, I say: GET OFF MY LAWN! I’M TRYING TO RECORD SOME BIRDS!!

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HENRYBOY, Mon, 18 Sep 2023 11:40:00 GMT