Tim Gebauer is both craftsman and artist

Aug 30, 2012 at 4:00 am
Tim Gebauer is equally comfortable writing songs and making commercial music.
Tim Gebauer is equally comfortable writing songs and making commercial music.

There are two pianos on the first floor of Tim Gebauer's home and studio, a baby grand and an upright, surrounded by countless other instruments and a new xylophone he is eager to show off. He has lived in the same house for twenty years. It is where he works, creates and raises his daughter. When asked why he has two pianos, Gebauer says, "Because you can't play Scott Joplin on the baby grand."

Sitting in his third-floor, fully equipped recording studio, he explains the existence of two types of musicians, sometimes at odds with one another: the craftsman, who makes music for others, and the artist, who makes music for himself. He says it's easier to understand if you step out of your own artistic medium. "If you are a painter, of course you are going to paint houses. Why wouldn't they? They get better, they get paid, and then they go home, and they do their art, and it makes perfect sense." Gebauer continually broadens his understanding of the music world through his business, Electropolis, and ultimately translates this knowledge to his personal music.

Electropolis and his personal work are no more than a cross between craft and art. "They both open doors and enlighten me about the mechanisms of each. You know, a craft-versus-art dilemma. Craft is this sort of more sellable, less of your own personal vision, but more accessible to more people. Then your art side may be how singular or experimental the vision is," Gebauer says.

Every day Gebauer composes music as an entrepreneurial, self-employed sound designer and producer at Electropolis. The company combines commercial work, sound design, music production and fine art. To clarify: No, Gebauer does not write jingles. He composes music to elicit a certain mood in a specified amount of time to be placed in advertisements. "I don't write lyrics or anything like that, but people want music that sounds current or fits their brand. I'm interested in getting an idea, a mood across. So I get hired to do that," he says.

He composes the background tracks to commercials — the squeaky door or spinning fan in a film and the voice-over that reminds you to grab a Budweiser. For this kind of work, the song typically runs for a total of 30 to 60 seconds, but that doesn't make Gebauer's job any easier. Eliciting a complete emotion in a small amount of time takes very specific skills.

"I like to make a piece that feels bigger and take a slice out of it, because then it implies the stuff that happened before and the stuff that happened after. To me that's where you get that larger sense and that feeling that it's just a small part of something bigger," Gebauer says.

Gebauer's clients include ad agencies D&B, BVK and Rodgers Townsend. He has worked with AB-InBev, McDonald's, St. Louis Children's Hospital, the Hartford and Enterprise. A large portion of his job is to translate the clients' wants into the final musical piece. Gebauer works through every detail, sometimes beginning with the simple question, "Do you want happy or sad?"

"That's a big part of the job: pulling out of them what it is that they have in their head," Gebauer says. He views his work with his clients as similar to working with other musicians. "I am collaborating. And I'm collaborating with people whose interests are different than mine."

Diversity is essential to remaining in his line of work. He can compose any moon, plays several instruments, and when something more is needed, he hires an outside musician. Gebauer isn't fixated on any genre of music, nor does he have a specialty. There's musical neutrality to his field; his personal tastes become unimportant compared with the client's needs. "You have to step back and look at the whole [music] scene objectively and say, 'Well, this will kind of work for this, and then I can tap into this emotion, and how can I arrange these pieces together?'" he says.

Electropolis is more than commercial music. The company also specializes in production for local bands and various sound-design projects, "creating all the sounds we hear, anything from dialogue replacement to talking to the sound of the AC or the fan," Gebauer says.

Each piece pushes Gebauer to learn something about music and sound. One client required an orchestral arrangement, forcing Gebauer to really step out of his comfort zone. "I had to learn a lot really quickly. Now I know more about horns and strings — not a ton — but I learned a few tricks here and there. I now know what voice each instrument has, how they are layered to get certain emotions," he says.

Gebauer's personal music is where he participates in artistic self-exploration and taps into his own emotions. Recently, he started a new folk project inspired by the likes of M. Ward and his own pursuit of pressureless expression. "The phase I am in right now is so loose. I am not trying to do anything. I just am working through some songs and playing them, and whatever happens, happens," Gebauer says. The unnamed project is a collaboration with the smoky female voice of Sleepy Kitty, Paige Brubeck, and the final outcome most likely will be a four- or five-song EP.

After finishing the first recording — the song "Dream of You" — Gebauer sees the album's direction more clearly. He hopes to bridge the line between natural and professional. "I like that kind of confusing blend of hi-fi but real. I like to hear the room; I like to hear movement. A lot of times, there is this push to clean every little aspect. I don't want to do that; I like the organic human-ness," he says.

Gebauer floats in the background of the St. Louis music scene and has for more than a couple decades now. If you were paying attention to the industrial-rock scene of the '90s, you are familiar with his band Bellyfeel. He put together a little-known project called Private Sector, an experimental ambiance album with a friend a few years back. While he rarely books shows around town, he plays an occasional open-mic night, where he practices his music by standing on a chair in the middle of the room. If you are seeking him out, it may be easiest to find him at the Mud House with a book and cup of coffee.

As a new approach to practice, perfect and test his songs, he feels he's dropped a certain act by playing only open-mic nights. "To me this feels so much purer. I'm not booking shows. I'm just going to an open mic and playing whatever songs I feel like," Gebauer says.

Like many artists, he has a quirk: a no-PA preference. "I've often thought of the PA as a barrier. It becomes a crutch for a performer. Nine times out of ten if you ask a performer how they did, they'll say the sound wasn't very good. Well, cut that slice out, and you can't blame the PA," he says.

His business and personal endeavors tangle and overlap. Gebauer explores the craft of sound and hones and heightens his musical skills through his business then applies them to his personal creations. Similarly, because he taps into certain emotions on his own search for self-expressing art, translating emotion for his clients is easier.

"I've learned [the two roles] are interdependent. I would never want to let go of one or the other because they are feeding each other, and I enjoy it. I love making music, any way that I can do it. I feel lucky to have it as a job."

Gebauer is a modest multi-role master; he is a musician, artist, producer, sound designer, entrepreneur and more. He absorbs music everywhere with an open-mindedness and neutral perspective that only allows him to interpret and create for himself and others on a deeper level.

"I just try to throw down all the walls and let them flood over each other. There are many times when I make music for a commercial, and I think, 'Yeah, I like this music, and this is cool,'" he says. "I borrow and steal from both sides. I'm convinced that continuing to create my own personal music forms and helps my commercial production. And my commercial production without a doubt forms and helps refine, polish and articulate my personal stuff."