Playlist: Alexander Brown
Sweetshop director and designer Alexander Brown picks his favourite music videos and champions unique ideas and elegant execution.
What’s the best promo you’ve seen recently and why?
The last video that really blew me away was Oscar Hudson’s video for Bonobo - No Reason - such a simple but well-executed idea. I wish I watched more music videos organically, but it seems like you really need to seek out videos these days. I try not to get too fixated with what others are doing though, because you run the risk of drinking from the same creative well and ending up with work that’s the same as everyone else. I think It’s more important to know what you want to achieve and have a unique identity.
What’s the first promo you remember being impressed by?
I think probably Martin De Thurah’s video for Carpark North [Human]. It’s one of those videos that, even now, I haven’t got a clue what it’s about or how the hell he sold in the idea. I’m sure that it’s as fascinating as the video itself. He has such a great style.
And what’s your all-time favourite music video?
It’s really tricky because whenever I think of my all-time favourite videos they haven’t always aged gracefully. Especially those groundbreaking videos that quickly become ‘one of many’. Revisiting them years later you can often find them feeling a little tired. But that’s why it’s important to have a unique idea that really complements the song rather than relying on narrative/mood/style/aesthetics.
To me the perfect video would be one that lands a single idea with an elegant execution and really fits the song. A video which has stands the test of time - Michel Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brother’s Let Forever Be, for example, is in my opinion perfect.
Which projects that you’ve worked on have you found most rewarding and why?
The video I made for James Blake last year, for If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead, was probably the most rewarding. It was such a fun and hands-on video to work on. It was quite a gamble because I shot it myself, with minimal crew. When we shot James, it was 2am in a carpark, and I lit him using small video projectors I found inside [Sweetshop director] Mark Albiston’s old award trophies. At one point, we needed a red light, so we just used the brake light of the producer’s car. But the concept was simple, and James is always so good to work with.
Quite often you have projects that start with an exciting idea which gets reduced during production, but in this case, it just expanded and grew; so it ended up being way more than we expected. I think it’s due largely to having a great soundtrack to begin with. If you have a great song, it’s always going to be more rewarding.
What other directors/artists do you look to for inspiration?
I try to watch a lot of movies but searching for inspiration by its definition is mercurial. I find true inspiration comes unexpectedly when I’m not looking. I loathe the times when I am unable to immediately write the idea down (in case I forget). I really enjoy photographers like Bruce Davidson or William Egglestone for their naturalistic compositions - but true inspiration seems to always start with a novel idea rather than a moodboard.
"I wasn’t particularly interested in design until High School where I developed a schoolboy crush on my art teacher. You could say that’s where it all started."
How has your design background informed your music video and commercial work?
It’s certainly given me a lot of great opportunities to “get in” with the band and start a relationship.
Starting out, I was always trying to make videos to complement the artwork; to do both and create the perfect campaign, but I think you really need to have a good reason for doing that. You’re setting a high bar if you want to create great artwork, AND a great video, both centred around the same concept, and execute them both at the same time. It can be impressive, like being a one man band is impressive, but it doesn’t sound as good as a symphony orchestra, so I try to keep things separate unless it really makes sense.
What are you listening to at the moment?
At the moment I’m quite taken by the album Muchacho De Lujo by Phospherescent [below]. It’s quite a beautiful album.
Mahal Kita by Emmy the Great. It’s only a single but I love the way it captures the identity of tourism as both being mystical and memorable yet also humdrum and mechanical at the same time. Having spent a couple of weeks in Barcelona this year I was struck by the huge numbers of immigrants on the streets selling knockoff luxury products, so I really connect with this song.
Maribou State, Nervous Tics; I worked on the artwork for this album campaign, so I have that personal attachment to the track, but I really like the energy of it and have been playing it a lot.
And ig Thief's Masterpiece (solo). I saw Big Thief play at Sasquatch festival earlier this year in Washington, I think this track is probably my favourite of theirs.
What’s your favourite bit of tech, whether for professional or personal use?
I have this funky, bent circuit video mixer, it only works with RCA video unfortunately, so its days are certainly numbered. You never quite know what it’s going to do as the effects change as the thing heats up, but it’s always fun to sprinkle some analog magic onto the screen.
"I’m not even sure if you can call [music videos] an industry now. Unless you can get to work with big ticket pop stars, it often feels like more of a hobby."
What artist(s) would you most like to work with and why?
I’d love to do a video with Jamie XX or Tame Impala [below], bands who have strong ideas and themes in their music but who don’t have much appetite for appearing in their work. I really like working with artists who know what they want, where you can really get under the skin of what you’re working with.
How do you feel the promo industry has changed since you started in it?
I’m not even sure if you can call it an industry now. Unless you can get to work with big ticket pop stars, it often feels like more of a hobby. I think when I started, there was still a way to get by working on smaller budgets, and still scraping a living together. But now, even with named acts, you still have to do a lot yourself or go around with the begging bowl. However, if you can get a beautiful piece of work out of it from time to time, and can feel you’re making something worth making, then it’s all worth it.
Where do you see the music video industry being in five years’ time?
Touch wood, I think the biggest disruptions have already happened. Music videos will always be around, and there will always be a demand for interesting, well-produced videos. There are so many bands out there now, and everyone is in their own algorithmic bubble, so I’m always amazed by what’s happening out there that I haven’t even heard about.
Within the industry I can see more self-shooting directors. Kids are growing up with powerful equipment and software literally at their fingertips. In the days of film, the DP was seen as a mystical wizard who you trusted to deliver great footage, but now, everyone has a camera, so there’s plenty of incentive for staying fresh and to keep moving forward and doing something different.