Q&A: Groove Guild's Al Risi on His Musical Missions for Volkswagen, SpaceX and More

Lifting off with David Bowie and Paul Simon

Al Risi's career in music began with an internship. Oddly, it was supposed to be someone else's gig. 

In 1992, while in college, Risi was managing his brother's band, the Pioneers, booking them at clubs in Hollywood, but  "I never realized there was a job for me in music," he tells Muse. "I thought you had to be a rock star, and that was it." 

Luckily, fate stepped in. "My roommate had an internship at Geffen. He's like, 'My car broke down, you want to take over my internship?' I'm like, 'OK, I guess.' I walked in the first day and realized, 'Holy shit! This is what I need to be doing!'"

Thus began a long rise through the ranks of A&R, marketing, sales and business development for major labels and production houses, including Universal Music, Platinum Records, Gold Circle Records, Virgin/EMI'S Higher Octave Music, Elias Arts and Primary Wave. In 2008, he formed representation firm ARMM, which five years later morphed into Groove Guild, a New York-based company that creates and curates music and audio for brands. Notable recent efforts include securing rights to classic '60s tracks for high-profile projects from Volkswagen and SpaceX. 

Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" drove an evocative VW spot in June called "Hello Light," by ad agency Johannes Leonardo. That outing—a Silver Clio Award winner this year in Use of Music—was pivotal for the carmaker, introducing its I.D. Buzz electric microbus and heralding a renewed focus on sustainability in the wake of its 2015 emissions scandal.

Jan Jacobs, creative chief at Johannes Leonardo, recalls that the idea for "Hello Light," began with "The Sound of Silence" literally. "My partner Leo [Premutico] heard the track, and then the ad just started playing out in his mind," Jacobs says. "We couldn't get it out of our heads. We realized that we couldn't create this spot without it. So we called Al, and he pushed it through and made it happen. This the first time this track has been used in a commercial, and we can thank Al for that. I don't think we would have gone in this direction without it."

For a subsequent VW spot "A New Mission," Risi selected a bare-bones 1969 demo version of David Bowie's breakthrough hit, "Space Oddity."

"Part of our pitch for the VW business was the anniversary of the moon landing to serve as a moment to not only reflect on one of the most significant moments in our nation's history, but use as a time to refocus on the greater mission ahead—our planet," Jacobs says. "When it was time for us to actually work on the creative, Al came to us with the unreleased Bowie track. Again, it was a perfect fit and we couldn't have planned it better." (Like the Apollo 11 lunar landing, "Space Oddity" also celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.) 

In a conversation below, edited for length and clarity, Risi discusses those projects, along with SpaceX's ballyhooed Falcon Heavy 9 launch, which used Bowie's "Life on Mars?" as the soundtrack for lifting a Tesla Roadster into space.

Muse: How did VW's "Hello Light" come about?

Al Risi: They didn't go into the deep rounds of searches and the music against picture and refining the direction. That went down in a very different way. I was involved in some early conversations with Johannes Leonardo when they started to think about creative. There were a bunch of songs, and "The Sound of Silence" rose up. That took hold, and the creative idea came to full fruition. We did decide to take a stab at trying to beat that track, but it became apparent that it told the story in a way no other track could. 

Hello Light | ID. BUZZ
How did you go about securing the rights?

Multiple entities were involved. Sony Music was the label. They control the master rights. Universal Publishing controls the publishing contract. But Paul Simon and his camp had the final say. 

Was Paul down with it from start?

It took over a month to get to a place where it was agreeable. It was never, "Yeah, we'll do this right away." It was like, "This is Paul's crown jewel, we're not sure, we need to know more." There were lots of conversations about what the spot would look and feel like—and obviously, money was a hurdle. But [Simon's camp also wanted to know] exactly how the song would be used, in what media, for how long. Every detail was of concern. 

Did he need to see a script, a storyboard?

We had a rip of the spot the day before it was shot, so we were able to put the song against the rip. I took it in and played it for the people at Sony. Then I went and played it for the people at Universal Publishing. Then we shared the rip with Paul's management company. 

How did that process compare to acquiring the demo of "Space Oddity" for the next VW spot, "The New Mission"?

There's an entity that represents most of David Bowie's interests, including publishing and masters. I got an email saying, "Hey, we've got this 50th anniversary of 'Space Oddity' coming up. Just curious if you're working on anything related to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. We have these unreleased versions of 'Space Oddity.' Maybe you want to check them out." When I got those tracks, I immediately sent them to Leo and said, "These are available for license. I don't know what you're working on for the moon landing celebration, but these are definitely worth considering." They had just started on ["The New Mission"], so the timing was great. They loved the idea that it was David Bowie—that's hard not to love—but also the fact that this version was never released. There was never a song in consideration beyond that. Johannes came back immediately and said they loved the Mercury demo session specifically. That's the one we ended up going with.

On that version, Bowie sounds more relaxed, less theatrical, than he does on the hit version. 

It makes your ears perk up a bit. When you hear it, you're like, "Wait, that's a little different." The song was recorded as a two-track demo in his flat in London, and it was for his local A&R guy. They wanted to send it back to the honchos in L.A. because they felt they had an amazing song. So that was Bowie early on trying to prove himself and sell the track. 

You had experience with Bowie before, in 2018, using "Life On Mars?" for SpaceX. How did that come about?

I have a relationship with SpaceX. … I just reached out, and they hit me with what was going on with this project—[asking,] did I want to get involved? Of course, that answer was a big fat yes! 

How did they describe it to you?

The way it was described initially was: It's the Falcon Heavy launch. They're going to do a live YouTube broadcast. And at some point, they wanted to be able to play a song. At the time, the song was "Space Oddity." Eventually, through a number of conversations, they shifted to "Life on Mars?" It was not even "they," it was "he"—Elon Musk. I didn't speak to him directly, but there were phone conversations between me and an intermediary. Elon was very hands-on, absolutely had to have the song. He wanted it for the YouTube live broadcast, and then they realized, "We're going to want a post asset," which is the cutdown version you see on our site. That's the showpiece. There's also an animatic version. It came down to having these three pieces—a live broadcast, the post asset and the animatic. There was conversation about not using it across all three pieces. They wanted to limit the exposure. But ultimately, through different conversations, they were able to grant rights across all three.

Back here on Earth, you did some notable work this year for Nickelodeon's Kids Choice Sports Awards with a frenetic track called "Milk It" [also the name of an ongoing campaign by the Milk Processor Education Program, one of the show's sponsors]. What were you trying to accomplish there?

They had that track in mind, but there were some internal people who thought maybe we could beat it. We ended up writing a track, which everyone fell in love with, and finding another band called Haiku Hands that everyone fell in love with, as well. We gave them a real dilemma in terms of what to pick. They ended up picking their original choice: "Milk It" by Rony Rex with Carla Monroe, I'm presuming because it was on the nose. They wanted to do a music video with all these influencers dancing and mimicking sports moves. The idea was, "Do you do sports? Work it out and you should drink milk to power that."

Your popular work for the Jamaica Tourist Board—that was an original track?

We got a call right before the 2014 [Sochi Winter] Olympics from FCB and they said, "We have this crazy idea. We have Jamaica tourism, they want to make a splash for the Jamaica bobsled team." The idea was to create a song that synched with the Jamaica bobsled team's live run at the track—with lyrics. We're like, "Alright, let us think about it, figure it out." We had to go back and look at old film and see the timing, and then write a track that would work with that. We wanted to have a Jamaican artist, so we connected with Sidney Mills, who we've had a relationship with for a long time. He's in a legendary band, Steel Pulse. He said sure. We co-wrote that track with Sidney. There was so much press coverage. And they didn't even qualify in their qualifying race.

But the story doesn't end there, right?

The story did not end there. At the end of 2017, we get a call from the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, saying, "Look, we know you guys wrote this song, and we'd like to work with you again. Could we use this song [ahead of the Winter Games in South Korea]. We said, "Sure. But that's been done already. No one's going to pay attention." So we came up with the idea of trying to create a dance out of that song—reinvent it, remix it, update it and shoot a video for it. We took on the whole production internally. We did the music video, shot it in Jamaica. The dance group is called the Ravers Clavers. I found them through a Red Bull video, and I was like, "These guys—they're authentic Jamaican. They have great moves." 

Any other recent initiatives you're especially proud of?

This is a little in the rearview mirror, and it's something we hope to resurrect again, but we did this show called Unsupervised [in 2017]. It's essentially an intimate conversation and then an intimate performance with an artist. We brought in a handful of people from the advertising world. The idea was to bring in the tastemakers and give them an intimate studio experience and hear the music in a different way. The artist we chose, her name is Aurora—a fantastic Norwegian artist. She was 18 or 19 but well beyond her years. We shot a piece with her, and I did an awesome interview with her, and she gave what I consider a phenomenal performance.

You made only one episode?

We only did the one. We have aspirations of doing it again. It was never meant to be on any kind of clock because it's more about finding the right artist at the right time with the right sound that would translate live. … I've yet to license anything from Aurora, but whenever I have a project, I certainly go down her catalog and see if there's anything I can do for her, and at some point, I will license something of hers. I think she's a phenomenal artist who has a huge career in front of her. 

Can you describe your creative philosophy or approach to the job—some overarching notion you bring to each project?

One of the really fun things about being a music supervisor is that virtually all jobs are different and require different thinking. Time, budget and creative direction all play a big role in dictating process. That said, the most important part of the process is to listen, listen some more, then ask the right questions. My job on creative calls is to get the team talking about their thought process. Understanding the driving force behind their thinking is imperative, and you can often pick up clues in the conversation that might not have surfaced otherwise. 

Everybody speaks about music a bit differently. Some really understand it, and can tell you exactly what they are looking for, and others will speak in much broader terms and focus in on the feeling they are trying to achieve. It's my job to translate these conversations, as well as the brief, into musical terms, then determine the best approach and resources. Sometimes it is just about what is in my head, other times it's about engaging labels, publishers, artists and other rights holders with a creative brief so they can dig into the deep corners of their catalogs. Most of the time, it is a combination of some outreach, some internal searching. The rest is a matter of drilling down, sifting and refining direction until we strike gold.

What advice would you give a young person who wants to get into the business today? 

Everyone's path is so different. One of the main pieces of advice that I've given is try to touch and feel as much of the business as possible. You don't want to put blinders on. You may think you want to do this or that, but there are even sublanes within the lanes. There are people who just do clearances within supervision as opposed to doing the creative. There's lots of ways to explore. Try to get your hands-on experience as early as possible so you can start to feel your way into a lane that you want as opposed to a lane you fall into. 

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