The Austin Chronicle

AFS Texas Documentary Tour

'The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose'

By Anne S. Lewis, January 12, 2007, Screens

If mention of the Holy Modal Rounders or either of their standard-bearers – guitarist Steve Weber and fiddler Peter Stampfel – will reliably prompt a "huh?" in certain quarters, it will as reliably induce tachycardia in those familiar with the whacked-out psychedelic folk group who started up in Greenwich Village in the Sixties and is still around, more or less. The latter, of course, will be the target audience for Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace's film The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose, and for them, the news that Stampfel and (especially) Weber are still alive and performing (sometimes) will be most welcome indeed.

A few fun background facts for the curiosity-piqued in the "huh?" camp.

1) It's easier to appreciate, or at least warm up to, the name of this group, whose first album was released in 1964, once you've heard a few of the names they tried on before settling on the Holy Modal Rounders: The Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers, the Temporal Worth High Steppers, and the Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers will give you the general idea.

2) The Rounders were briefly part of the Fugs.

3) Shortly after that association ended, the Rounders expanded from an acoustic folk duo into a psychedelic country rock band. Sam Shepard (yes, him) joined the group as a drummer for three years. While he was with them, the Rounders recorded a fourth album, including the "Bird Song," which many will recognize from the soundtrack of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The group also made a guest appearance on Laugh-In, though as an incredulous Shepard admits on camera, he has no recollection whatsoever of that. This will serve to underscore the ongoing altered nature of the group's collective state, something that will surprise no one.

Douglas and Lovelace spent three years filming the group's resurgence following the success of their 1999 comeback album, Too Much Fun, as well as an ambitious West Coast tour and the fate of a 40th anniversary show in Portland. Along the way, the filmmakers attempt to both deconstruct the Rounders' allure to their devoted fan base and the chemistry – or lack thereof – between the on- and offstage bickering Stampfel and Weber, who each seem fairly oblivious to their current codger status.

The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose

Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace in attendance

Wednesday, Jan. 17, 7pm

Alamo Drafthouse Downtown


Austin Chronicle: So, what is the allure and legacy of the Rounders?

Sam Wainwright Douglas: The essence of the Holy Modal Rounders' appeal is their sense of humor, their joyful attitude, and their lust for life. Their legacy is that they created surreal, fun music and stayed true to what they cared about regardless of how popular it was, how much money it was making them, or whether or not anyone else even got it. They were adventurous and fearless and couldn't be pinned down. The fact that they were so free-spirited is something I think any musician, artist, filmmaker, or whoever can appreciate and desire in some manner in their own life.

AC: The film has a lot going on with all of the archival footage and live footage. What were some of the challenges involved in putting this together?

SWD: Waiting for the finale of the film to appear. We knew we needed some kind of event to wrap the film up and have it build up to. I don't want to give away too much of the ending, but after what transpired during the band's 40th anniversary show, we knew we had the movie.

Another challenge was finding archival footage that hadn't been seen a hundred times before in every other documentary that chronicles the counterculture in New York's Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Thankfully, my co-director, Paul, had a friend at the Anthology Film Archives in New York who uncovered reels and reels of Super-8 film shot all over NYC by a jazz photographer named Bob Parent. The stuff had never been used by anyone, so we ended up with some very fresh, never-before-seen images that brought Sixties bohemian New York to life. We were really excited because the images were shot with an artistic eye, unlike a lot of the stock newsreels that you commonly see.

AC: Was Weber really as difficult in person as he seemed in the film? Was he hard to deal with during the shoot?

SWD: Not at all. We often had to work around his schedule, which was pretty unpredictable at times, but during the shooting the whole crew got along very well with him. He's charming and sweet in person and full of hilarious stories. He's very uninhibited and open about his life. It might take a while to get something shot because he's pretty impetuous and marches solely to his own beat, but he was always happy to eventually accommodate you.

I was most pleased with the scenes involving Weber at home with his mother. They really show a tender, more vulnerable side to a very charismatic person who often came across as an invincible force of nature. But I also really like the scene in which Stampfel and Weber argue about who wrote which songs because it reveals in a very raw way the tension and jealousy that often linger just below the surface in almost every artistic collaboration. end story

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