Donny Walker, Kelly Askam, and Zacariah Jarrett INTERVIEW

We have an exclusive interview with some of the people involved in the upcoming movie Music Presents: The Showcase. Check it out below and make sure to check out the film.

Mind Exchange Music Presents : The Showcase is a fabulous film about a grand undertaking – producing an album and 14 music videos in one day! We caught up with the producers Donny Walker, Kelly Askam, and Zacariah Jarrett to discuss!

Where’s home for you gents?

Donny: Currently Chicago, but born in Waunakee – a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin

Kelly:  Currently Chicago, but raised 100 miles straight west of Chicago in the small town of Oregon, IL

Zach: Jackson, Michigan- One-time home of James Earl Jones and several astronauts. Now in Chicago.

You kicked off your careers…?

Donny: Originally, I went to college to learn music performance. While there, I studied orchestration, composition, arranging, etc. Now I’m a mix of composer, music producer, creative director for our company, teacher, educator & performer. I kicked it off as hard as it kicked me a few times.

Kelly:  I would say my career found a groove around 2016. That’s when Donny, Zach, and I realized that the film and media industry had much more structure and opportunity for growth than the music industry. So I started mixing the original scores for independent short films that Donny composed, and Mind Exchange Music LLC was born. I quickly expanded our services by doing production sound on film sets, and post-production sound (supervision, dialogue editing, re-recording mixing), and I brought Zach on board to handle sound design, foley, and score mixes. Within our first year, I was so busy “on set” and in post that I left my 3 other jobs to pursue MInd Exchange Music LLC full time.

Zach: I got into audio recording professionally in 2007. My focus then was recording music. A lot of the work was in traditional jazz, but I also had the chance to work on indie and hip-hop. Fast forward to 2016, when Kelly asked if I would be interested in assisting him on location for an independent movie. I joined him for that project, and later, he asked if I would like to take a crack at another endeavor: spotting some sound effects to replace and sweeten the production audio. The process was a lot of fun! When we were finished, Kelly mentioned that he thought I might have a knack for the job. Since I had no idea what I was doing, I was of course, really flattered. It got me thinking about the possibility. Donny and Kelly continued to reach out, and they have included me in some really cool projects ever since. They have been great mentors and teammates, both personally and professionally.

Was it film or music that inspired you to take this course?

Donny: It was music first. I learned as many instruments as I could, I studied from the masters, and I craved a sense of validation from it. I built my skills around the traditional scoring approaches, assimilated the recording and audio engineering techniques, and I freelanced in music production work for a few years before realizing that these skills were, ironically, so underused in modern music production for film. So we applied them in context whenever applicable, paid our dues, did our time, learned the trade, and jumped into film projects with a very serious set of skills that immediately set us apart. We made friends fast, and we put our earnings back into the same projects that were providing the checks, because we wanted them to be better than what we were being paid to do. A pile of successful film projects later, we figured out that our work was drawing attention quickly. Now, we are beyond grateful just to have made a name for ourselves, and a reputation that’s paved the way for so much more. We are able to apply that knowledge and obsession to our own movies, based around the skills we love best – music performance & production. Film has never not inspired me, however, it’s even more amazing now, and the exact direction I believe we all want to be moving.

Kelly:  Music has always been my first true love and passion in life, and by the time I was three (according to my mom), I proclaimed to my family that I would play the saxophone. Sure enough, from 5th grade through high school I would be in every band and choir possible in my small town of Oregon, Illinois. I would study tenor saxophone privately with several college graduates and attend jazz music camps in the summers. And all of it helped me achieve placement in several district bands, all-state jazz bands, and competitions for the regional National Foundation in Arts program. In addition to music, my interest in computers, video games, and electronics emerged from spending time with my older brother. My friends and I would tinker with home and car stereos.  I would record my private music lessons to cassette tapes, and then eventually burn them on CDs. Whenever I went to a concert, I would bootleg record it with my MiniDisc, with miniature microphones placed in my ears. Music and technology were each very fascinating to me, and I would continue my music education by studying jazz performance at DePaul University.  This would evolve to become a Bachelor of Science in Sound Recording Technology, once I realized that I could combine both my passions for music and technology by learning sound engineering. From 2008 to 2016, Donny, Zach, and I would become good friends and produce several concert programs for the Lake County Symphony Orchestra. That ushered in our transition to production sound, post production sound, film scores, and music publishing through the new company of Mind Exchange Music LLC.

Zach: Well, as I said, music was really my introduction into audio. My dream was to make records, but that coincided with the collapse of most of the music industry. Of course, there are still plenty of studios and people continuing to make music, but it’s much more concentrated in privately owned studios now, rather than those held by major record labels. What I have learned from going back and forth between the film and music projects, is that they really inspire and inform each other. I take away a lot of really cool ideas, and it keeps me feeling fresh and motivated.

And the first film you worked on was…?

Donny: Our first project was back when we had all finished school. It was for a low budget musical film called “Diamond Meadows,” which was new but exciting. This paved the way for so much growth, and 50ish projects later, we’re working on bigger stuff now, so it’s an honor and a pleasure.

Kelly:  Ironically, I assisted some production sound mixers for a couple short films at the tail end of college, but since I was studying music at a different campus, the thought never crossed my mind that I would eventually end up in the film industry.  I think my first post production project was mixing Donny’s score for “Diamond Meadows” right after college.  It was a sort of glam rock musical dream that inspires a young girl’s confidence. It was a lot of fun because we recorded and mixed a full rock band in the music studio where I was interning.  Looking back now, it’s quite humorous, because we were really inexperienced then (the filmmakers too), and there is a ton of terrible lip sync! Haha!

Zach: I worked on a short film called “The Dig” with Kelly and Donny. I even did some of the sound captures with Kelly on that one. I learned that when you’re building sound, replicating that exact sound doesn’t always capture the richness of what we’re accustomed to hearing, so you definitely have to exaggerate things to get them to sound correct. I had to train myself to overemphasize the parts of what I was constructing. That way, the components that were more psychological were reinforced and capable of being altered to suit those scenes and their moods correctly. That film, The Dig, was a trade-off that Mind Exchange Music did with another creative team. In exchange for us doing their sound and music, they came and made projected videos that would be accompanied by an orchestra concert. We played video game music for that project, which was designed to entertain 700 kids over 4 different performances. We wrote the orchestra music, plotted out the videos, and figured out character narration. We also synchronized audio soundscapes to accompany projected comic books, age-appropriate science fiction films, dance-alongs, and a narrated guitar concerto (like Tchaikovskys’ Peter & The Wolf’) to teach the kids about anti-bullying approaches, and they got to see the orchestra live!

How do you choose which projects to get involved in?

We try to determine which projects to get involved with based on a variety of factors: time, quality, rate, interest, project requirements, satisfaction vs. justification & incentive. We have to have the time to meet their deadlines, but if they don’t have deadlines, we can deep dive on quality and self realization, which always gets better results. However, the client usually has a precise idea of what they’re looking for, and if not, they’ll communicate that along the way. If we can’t make deadlines, we look at taking on more teammates. They need to make their fair share, the company needs to get paid too, and we need to have money for taxes. If the deadline is so close that quality doesn’t matter, we’re not the team for that job. We don’t do hack jobs, and we don’t enjoy working on projects where our entire purpose is to fix someone else’s lack of precision. Our goal is to knock it out of the park with the least amount of conflict as fast as possible. Ideally, we have enough time to find our individual interest and stake in each project, which really helps a lot. If we can’t all find something exciting about each project, at least the money needs to be worth that investment of time and energy. The rate just has to be worth the time, ya know? We’ve done enough low budget projects to understand the importance of maintaining sanity, and the consequential health issues that come in its wake. And more often than not, the people who drive the price down fastest are the pickiest and hardest to work with. Better they find someone else who vibes with those kinds of requirements.

In regards to project requirements, we try to make sure we have the right tools, the right kind of equipment, and the right musicians (if the composer can’t track those instruments in himself), but we also need to make sure we have the right people on the job and that they’re motivated and feel good about the rate & timeline. If we presume we will be unsatisfied with the process (you only need a few to realize the red flags) then we price high. If that goes over smoothly and we’re getting a rate that’s worth the challenges and the inconveniences, we can then justify the process. We just don’t provide much feedback. However, if we love the project because it’s gorgeous and has remarkable potential, and our ideas will be respected in a way that makes it worth our time, we will justify taking on the project, even if we know it’s less than what we’re looking for timewise. In those situations, we always argue for more time, and we leave stipulations in the contract about ensuring that a mutual understanding is clear and agreed upon.

With a doc, is it scripted? Or do you have a series of bullet points and just go film? How does that work?

With most docs, presumably no. Maybe there’s an outline or the film maker just keeps the interview going until they acquire the vulnerability they are looking for. In our own music production documentary, I took the time to devise a rough storyline for each person to follow so that we had a proper lead into the following segment, but those longitudinal ideas were really more of an ideal end goal. The full story wasn’t realized until we knew exactly what all the lessons were for us, where our epiphanes took place, and what purpose it stood in relation to what other performances were coming up next. Piecing together the story was easy because, after so many years of working on all the individual components, and then hearing all the stories from the day of, you realize there’s just more to it than you imagined. So why not improvise that understanding? That idea gave us a clear understanding and intention to what we were going to say, but it also allowed for spontaneity along the way.

What was it about this project that was the main appeal?

Differentiation. We wanted to design something that allowed us to compete with the big players in the industry, but without all the wasted time of going through redundant steps. If we could design something that showcased our abilities in a way that enhanced our company goals operationally, it would be easier for people to discern whether we’re a good fit or not. In watching our music performance documentary, prospective clients can see our ability in live time, hear the end goal quality, better understand our personalities, and see us showcase our passions. These future clients can really get to know us and realize how different we are from any others they’ve worked with before.

Since your journey in film and music, what have you learnt about the industry?

Donny: Investing in yourself is everything. You cannot wait for others to put money into you. If you dump money, time, obsession and dedication into your skills, your talents, your knowledge, your tools, your abilities, and your vision, flourishing will be the gift. If you dedicate yourself toward building a future full of the kind of work you want to do based on what makes you the happiest and gives you the best opportunity to grow, others will willingly invest in your skills. They will want you to contribute to their projects.

Kelly:  Oh gosh. There’s so many things I’ve learned these past 16 years. One eye opener was just how different the film industry is from the music industry, and how much transitioning from music to film at 32 years old would feel like completely starting over. I was reading college textbooks, online tutorials, web forums, you name it, trying to learn this new craft enough to talk the talk and then walk the walk! The film industry has so much more structure and precedents to it, so it was a major revamp of creative thought process, client expectations, and general approach to freelance business. The film and media industries have a huge demand for quality sound personnel, and being able to hone in on this has allowed me to more quickly reach a living wage, join professional networks, and find personal fulfillment in the process. All of this affirms I’m on the right path.

Zach: What I’ve learned the most is that you can never stand still; there’s always something to learn, some new technology to get a hold of, and fresh perspective through which to see.

What’s next on the dance card? Another documentary in the pipeline?

That’s a great question. Hmm. We built our publishing catalog, we built our label, we’ve got our recording studio, and we love the work we do. I’d say pitching our feature idea to the right people is next, so we can get funding in place to make a series that can be narrative, documentary, music performance, and educational all at the same time. Mostly, however, we just want to do amazing things that are derived from our passions and that satiate our souls. If we have to be the ones to create and design those opportunities, so be it. If narrative storytelling makes sense, we’ll take that risk. I’m sure whatever we do will be amazing, as long as our respective and collective passions are encouraged, and our souls (and mouths) are fed.

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