Sound Checking for a Pulse, and Finding It
The rock docs in this year's 24 Beats Per Second program rattle and hum with soul and revolt
Down off South Congress, about six blocks below the river, in the heart of Travis Heights, sits an enormous house with a porch and a tire swing hanging in the front yard. Enter through the side door and go up the stairs, and there you are, in the temporary offices of Faron West Productions, run by local filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen. You wouldn't know it looking around the place modest and brightly lit, with a few desks and a digital editing workspace but here is where they're staging a war against the music industry.
Last week, they sat me down in this little room and showed me a fresh edit of their brand-new film, Before the Music Dies, which is set to premiere as part of the 24 Beats Per Second program during South by Southwest.
The movie, filled with interviews with and performances by some of the biggest artists in the record industry, past and present, is a tribute and a warning, a gauzy ode and a call for revolt. Shapter and Rasmussen, both music lovers and both frustrated with the current state of the music business, decided to find out exactly what disease had infected the record industry, causing it to put more value on the look and marketing of its artists than on their talent.
They set out with a handful of questions: What recourse does an artist have when music executives are merely businessmen, more concerned with quarterly reports than real, soulful music? What chance do musicians and music fans have in a world where lax media-monopoly laws allow Clear Channel to control so many of the nation's radio stations and determine our taste? What do we as a society do when commerce is having its way with art?
After securing funding from local music lovers here in Austin, the two men went on a 40-city road trip around the country to find answers. "We talked to people at all levels about music," Shapter says. "The next thing you know, we had tapped a nerve with musicians all around the country, and it was obvious we were onto something."
The cast of characters whose nerves the filmmakers tapped reads like a who's who of modern music: Dave Matthews is involved, as are Eric Clapton and local hero Doyle Bramhall II, who recently found himself on the business end of the industry's move toward image-based youth marketing. Erykah Badu mocks female "singers" who mark progress in their careers by dispensing with yet another article of clothing. And Branford Marsalis' broadside against soulless A&R men is probably worth the price of admission alone.
There are some great performances in the film, as well, from all corners of the American music world: from Ray Charles and Billy Preston going crazy R&B on an early television variety show to local hero Guy Forsyth mauling a harmonica somewhere downtown. Shapter and Rasmussen chose the artists they profile for their passion and talent for lack of a better word, their "heart." Their worry is that, in this modern world of MTV and prefabricated teen-pop princesses, somehow the feeling of music is getting lost, that some essential social function isn't being performed when good, honest music isn't being heard. "Music inspires us," the film's narrator intones. "It moves us. It accompanies our lives."
"For the audience that really does love music," Rasmussen says, "this feels like a love letter, a reverent admonition to keep making music no matter what. On the other hand, if we can make this entertaining enough and interesting enough, then one subversive goal is [that] this will serve as a tool for opening people's eyes."
Shapter agrees. "We want to reinspire people," he says.
Three years ago, documentary film director Steven Cantor and producer Matthew Galkin were shooting the first season of Family Bonds, a documentary series about a family of bail bondsmen and bounty hunters in New York, for HBO. The two bonded (apologies) during their time on the set over their mutual love of the Pixies, the legendary indies who had imploded unceremoniously back in 1992. When the two heard that the band was getting back together to tour, they decided to shoot a documentary about their reunion instead of just jumping in line to buy tickets like normal people.
Cantor and Galkin joined the band at their first rehearsal in Minneapolis and followed them throughout their sold-out tour, which took them all over the United States and Europe. At its end, they had shot more than 800 hours of footage. The result is loudQuietloud, a fascinating but sobering look at life on the road for a band who, after 10 years apart, is suddenly the biggest game in town.
The film's title is both a play on the commonly held and totally absurd music-journalist notion that the Pixies invented the use of dynamics in rock music and the schizophrenic nature of the band members' relationships. Despite shows full of rabid fans and the financial windfall that accompanies them, there's a pall hanging over the tour, a pervasive sadness among the members of the group. They never seem to talk to one another, really; they just spend most of their time buried in their respective hotel rooms. Bass player Kim Deal walks around a nervous wreck, keeping her twin sister, Kelley, constantly at her side for protection. Guitarist Joey Santiago seems bored and listless. Drummer David Lovering, now a magician and pill-popper, is falling apart before our eyes (occasionally even onstage). And the leader of the band, Black Francis, born Charles Thompson and otherwise know as Frank Black, is forced to retreat to the tour bus and the relative solace of his self-help audio tapes to find some peace of mind: I am a good person. I have a positive mental attitude. I can do it. People like me.
"They're just really quiet and really somber offstage," Cantor says. "And then they get onstage, and there's this amazing chemistry and electricity, and the crowd's going crazy, and they're all smiling and happy and sweaty."
I should say that I've never been a big Pixies fan, but even I have to admit to being impressed by the live performances in this movie; there's a power and emotional intensity to the songs that flies far above their recorded versions. Despite any lingering resentments and frayed emotional connections among the members of the band, there is something undeniable, even alchemical, about the four of them onstage.
When I asked the filmmakers how the tour came about, they made reference to how much appeal the Pixies still had for their older fans and to how many newer fans had jumped on board during the band's silent years. The Pixies' stock had gone up, essentially, with time. Or as Galkin puts it, after a decade disbanded, the group's members began to realize their "earning potential." The math added up, and two of the band's four members were broke, so they put their differences aside and jumped in a bus. Watching the former Charles Thompson and company struggle their way through loudQUIETloud, one gets the feeling they may have struck a devil's bargain.
Of course, it's a bargain most bands would probably be happy to struggle with.
Not everyone can be Dave Matthews or the Pixies. For every Weezer, there are a thousand bands toiling away in obscurity, traveling around in small vans, playing in even smaller clubs. For these bands, Clear Channel and a consolidated mass-media are only wished-for enemies. They would probably welcome emotionally exhausting reunion tours with banners and a parade.
Take the artists profiled in Pick Up the Mic, director Alex Hinton's documentary about the roots and evolution of gay hip-hop, or homo-hop. Most of these MCs will go through their entire careers unknown to the mainstream music industry and to mainstream culture in general. America is still queasy about the idea of five gay men redecorating apartments on TV, much less the thought of listening to Johnny Dangerous rhyme about how exactly he likes his ass played with.
But these artists are out there, writing rhymes, putting on festivals, putting out records. And they're mobilizing. "What we captured [with this movie] was the beginning of this whole movement," says Hinton, "which is queers taking their place at the table of hip-hop, saying, 'Fuck you, this is what I'm doing, this is who I am, and I'm not going to let your boundaries keep me confined.'"
As much as any group of artists you could probably think of, the musicians in Pick Up the Mic are in an uphill struggle to achieve any sort of recognition. Dutchboy, Katastrophe, and Aggracyst may never be household names (though if God had a sense of humor, Deep Dickollective would be), but they are, as the film shows, serious performers with a serious desire for self-expression. "These artists are starved for some kind of platform," Hinton says. "They have a lot to say, and they really want to get their voices heard." And it's that sort of need for communication, the argument goes, that is the real motivation behind making music beyond looks, beyond sales, beyond marketing.
Or as Rasmussen, producer of Before the Music Dies, would say, "Music isn't here to sell soap."
Music also isn't always as serious as all that, of course. Stories about homosexual empowerment or the isolating qualities of fame or the decline and fall of the music industry have their place, but they aren't the only ones making their way to SXSW this year. There are plenty of movies out there about musicians who seem blissfully unaware of or indifferent to the concerns of the marketplace and the political value of self-expression.
Take the hero of Punk Like Me, 37-year-old family man Rich Wilkes, who cons his way onto the Warped tour as the lead singer of the world's first punk rock mariachi band, Carne Asada, and proceeds to live out his long-simmering dreams of rock stardom, all the while with wife and child in tow; or Daniel Smith, from J.L. Aronson's Danielson: A Family Movie, who forms a band composed almost entirely of his brothers and sisters and tours them around the country as Make a Joyful Noise Here, delivering a little of the "healing power of the Good News." It's modern-day gospel music for skeptics, hipsters, and other lost souls.
Take Ronnie Lane, former bassist and lead songwriter for Sixties legends the Small Faces, who was on the verge of striking it rich numerous times during his career before realizing he'd prefer heading a makeshift traveling circus and recording bluegrass songs in the English countryside. In The Passing Show, directors Rupert Williams and James Mackie paint a portrait of a man so in love with making music that even multiple sclerosis can't get him down. Imagining Lane or any of the aforementioned much less the enthusiasts in Alexandra Lipsitz's Air Guitar Nation, for instance, or Femi Kuti in Dan Ollman's Suffering and Smiling or the Beastie Boys fans in Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That! or Dale Watson in Zalman King's Crazy Again or Los Lonely Boys in Hector Galán's Los Lonely Boys Cottonfields and Crossroads even uttering the words "quarterly report" is a stretch.
Which brings us back to Before the Music Dies. The film's creators have some pretty harsh things to say about the state of music these days. Watching it, you get the feeling multinational corporations are hovering just outside the gates, ready to suck all the life out of the industry. Is everything lost? Is it too late for music to be a viable artistic force outside the marketplace? Should we be cynical?
"I have never felt more positive about the future of music than I do now," Shapter says. "The future looks bright for all the bands coming to South by Southwest because they're powered by the Internet and they're powered by affordable technology. Imagine the music we're going to hear 10 years from now."
New technologies have radically altered the landscape of music production over the past 10 years. Recording quality that before would have only been attainable in million-dollar studios can now be achieved with a laptop computer in somebody's bedroom. Independent record labels continue to pop up everywhere, offering bands the chance to get their music out to people's ears free of the blessing of a board of directors. And communal sites like MySpace and file-sharing sites and freeware like LimeWire and BitTorrent are taking promotional power out of the hands of industry executives and putting it back into the hands of the artists and their fans.
Of course, that means that responsibility is back in their hands, as well.
"It is an incredible time for music fans and for musicians," Rasmussen says. "The good news and the bad news is that it's entirely up to you. There is no gatekeeper anymore."
Air Guitar Nation
Sunday, March 12, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 14, 1:45pm, Austin Convention Center
Thursday, March 16, 9:45pm, Austin Convention Center
Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That!
Wednesday, March 15, 6:45pm, Paramount
Before the Music Dies
Sunday, March 12, 4:30pm, Paramount
Wednesday, March 15, 1:30pm, Paramount
Friday, March 17, 1:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 11, 4:15pm, Dobie
Danielson: A Family Movie
Tuesday, March 14, 4:30pm, Dobie
Wednesday, March 15, 5pm, Dobie
East of Havana
Tuesday, March 14, 6:45pm, Paramount
Saturday, March 18, 2pm, Paramount
Friday, March 17, 7pm, Paramount
Los Lonely Boys: Cottonfields and Crossroads
Friday, March 17, 4pm, Austin Convention Center
loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies
Sunday, March 12, 9:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Tuesday, March 14, 9:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 18, 4:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
Tuesday, March 14, 5:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Friday, March 17, 4pm, Alamo South Lamar
The Passing Show
Thursday, March 16, 1:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Pick Up the Mic
Sunday, March 12, 2:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 15, 6pm, Alamo South Lanar
Punk Like Me
Monday, March 13, 9:45pm, Austin Convention Center
Wednesday, March 15, 7pm, Austin Convention Center
Saturday, March 18, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
The Refugee All-Stars
Monday, March 13, 8pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 16, 11:15am, Austin Convention Center
Suffering and Smiling
Tuesday, March 14, 10pm, Austin Convention Center
Friday, March 17, 1:30pm, Austin Convention Center