DIRECTOR KENNETH THOMAS TALKS BLOOD, SWEAT & VINYL: DIY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
If you care about heavy music and still believe that art should trump commerce every time, you owe it to yourself to check out Blood, Sweat & Vinyl: DIY in the 21st Century. I’ve written about Kenneth Thomas’s music documentary in these e-pages before. After watching the film a second time, I’m even more convinced of its importance as both a document of bands that you rarely (if ever) got to hear from outside of the concert hall, and argument for the importance of underground music makers, making music underground. Thomas chose to keep the focus tight, centering on the musicians, artists and label heads associated with three independent labels that are doing things their own way: Hydra Head, Neurot Recordings and Constellation. While there are certain characters that emerge as the spiritual ballast for the film – Aaron Turner of Isis & Hydra Head, Steve von Till of Neurosis & Neurot, and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, in particular – the overwhelming sense is of a giant inter-connected family of passionate people, united by nothing other than a desire to pursue truth and clarity through music.
Aside from a couple off-camera giggles during an adorable scene with Justin Broadrick (Jesu/Godflesh), Thomas himself doesn’t show up in his film. So we figured we’d find out what the director had to say about his opus.
When and where did you start listening to the bands that Blood, Sweat & Vinyl focuses on?
Well, if you REALLY want to trace the roots, I would say that it all started when I was in the 5th grade and I heard Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All blasting from my older brother’s room. My taste for long, heavy, and epically driven songs pretty much started then. By the time I was out of college, my musical tastes were starting to stagnate, as I wasn’t sure where to find music that affected me in the way Metallica did in my youth. My then-girlfriend introduced me to Times of Grace, by Neurosis, probably as a way to say, “Hey, stop listening to the same Slayer albums over and over.” It was perfect timing, as my mind was hungry for something new and exciting, and this album fed it like no other. A few years later, I was introduced to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, while hanging out with some friends in an airstream trailer in the middle of the woods on San Juan Island. I couldn’t concentrate on the conversation, as the music was too emotionally engrossing. And this was music that was purely instrumental, with no vocals! This, too, was new and exciting for me; so my quest for music that affected me like Godspeed and Neurosis was underway.
How did you choose Hydra Head, Neurot and Constellation? Were there other labels in contention?
I have to thank Aquarius Records in San Francisco for that. For those that don’t know it, this record store consistently reviews select niches of music and albums, with immensely detailed descriptions that reference other bands, labels and genres. With my newfound love of bands like Neurosis, Isis and Godspeed, and the assistance of Aquarius, my music collection grew over the years to include a lot of bands on those three labels. Other labels were definitely in contention for the documentary, like Southern Lord and Ipecac – but I wanted to have some variety in the music, as the ideas expressed in this documentary spread across many genres of music. The goal wasn’t to make a metal documentary, but to… wait, that’s getting into the next question.
There aren’t a ton of musical traits that all three labels share. Is there something in particular that binds the bands you interviewed together in your mind?
The goal wasn’t too make a metal documentary, a “post-rock” documentary, or anything that focused on only one style of music. The goal was to explore the ideas behind why people made music like this and to show how these bands embraced the idea of not being placed into a neat little genre. Can you simply call Neurosis “metal”? What does “post-rock” mean, really? We use these terms to describe these bands, but they don’t suffice. These bands share this defiance of description, but more than that, they share a DIY ethos that was inspired by like-minded punk musicians in the early ’80s. And these aesthetics and ideas, started by musician-driven labels like SST and Dischord, have evolved to incorporate different styles of art and music – as seen in modern labels like Hydra Head, Neurot Recordings, and Constellation. Hence, the idea of “DIY in the 21st Century.”
Perfect example – just look at the lineup for the ATP Festival that Godspeed You! Black Emperor curated last December: Neurosis, Wolves in the Throne Room, Thee Oh Sees, Tim Hecker, just to name a few… It all makes sense, and it’s because of the shared attitudes and philosophies.
Looking back on it… yes. My goals were to shoot footage with a specific aesthetic, interview key people about the philosophies that went into the creation of their respective record labels, and to investigate how and why they create this music that has no real hope of “mainstream appeal.” I had my own ideas as to why they do what they do, but I wanted to hear it from them. And, as I edited it over the years, I gradually found more and more common bonds between everybody, the most common being the need to have a legacy of something pure and genuine – which fed into my initial idea of investigating the concept of DIY in the modern age. So, yeah, this was a project that had a focus that stayed on track from beginning to end.
You’re noticeably absent from Blood, Sweat & Vinyl as a narrator. Tell me why you decided to leave your voice out of it.
That was purely an aesthetic choice. My favorite documentaries tend to be the ones that don’t have a lot of narration or on-screen text to explain what’s happening. Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a great music documentary that tells a story of an indie rock band solely through interviews with a large cross-section of people who love this particular band. I wanted to make a film that also told a story without relying on the easy outs of narration. Don’t get me wrong, I love plenty of docs that are narrated – but the ones that stick out are the ones that tell a story 100 percent from the mouths of the interviewees. Just look at any doc by Errol Morris to see what I mean.
Plus, the story in this film is based around the philosophy that drives these labels to exist – and my goal was to find those philosophical connections and edit them together in a way that shows a sort of common allegiance. I didn’t need to narrate that idea – it would have come off as obvious and contrived.
You interview so many bands, artists and label employees, and I’m sure there were tons more that you could have interviewed. Did you have a set goal of folks to talk to or did you just arbitrarily decide at some point “Okay, that’s enough – I gotta start editing this thing?”
Ha! This question rocks, as this was the EXACT statement I repeatedly said to myself for a good year before I finally stopped shooting.
I definitely had my key list of people – the heads of the labels, and members of the three bands on which I place a primary focus: Neurosis, Isis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And I was able to get those interviews. But you’re right, it’s easy to just keep going, and going, and going…bands and labels change and evolve over time, and I found that I had to literally say, “That’s it. By the time this comes out, things will be different with everybody in this doc.” Isis is now broken up. Godspeed has come out of hiatus. Several of the bands have released albums since this was filmed. But this doc captures a moment in time with a select group of people, much like any music documentary that profiles a movement, band or genre. The common thread is the DIY ethos, which is something that carries the ideas of the doc into the present, with excitement for the future.
You’ve got so many different types of footage – performance footage, studio footage, nighttime interviews, interviews in controlled indoor environments. What was it like editing this all down to a visually compelling documentary?
That’s the main reason why this took over five years to finish! Like I said before, I had a pretty clear vision of what the central themes to this film were, the main one being the state of the DIY ethos in modern-day record labels that were started by artistically-driven musicians. After filming concerts and interviews for two to three years, I simply had to take a year to just look at all of the footage and play with different ideas of how to arrange it. But as bands release new albums and labels undergo changes, I wanted to keep documenting. Keeping the focus on the three labels was key. I could keep shooting more and more footage, and spread the focus out to more labels – but then the ideas would get diluted. By keeping the focus tight, I believe that I was able to keep the story interesting and compelling.
Was there anything that you left on the editing room floor that you wish you could have included?
Definitely. An early edit contained some killer live footage of Mono, one of my personal favorite bands – but, because they are not on Hydra Head, Neurot Recordings or Constellation, I had no footage of anybody else talking about them. The same goes for Conifer, which was one of the heavier bands I shot over the five years. On top of that, I have some great edits of Daughters and Xasthur that had to be trimmed down to the bare minimum, simply because I had to try and keep the film at a watchable running time.
However, for all of the performances that exist in the film, I actually have their entire concerts on videotape, emblazoned onto scores of videotapes. A lot of the best selections from these that didn’t make the final cut are included on the bonus DVD that we are including with the limited edition release of the film. I couldn’t let 95 percent of the footage just sit there; so I thought that releasing a bonus DVD along with the film would be an ideal way to get more of this stuff out there. There’s still a lot more, though – so the website will be updated on occasion with more “cutting room floor” footage, as well.
Did experiencing so much of this music through the lens of a director/cinematographer change the way you interact with this music?
Actually, being able to film these bands satisfied a long-running need to document this movement – by that, I mean that when I see a live performance by a band I dig, I can’t help but imagine how I’d shoot and edit it. So I was actually able to enjoy the performances MORE, by being up close and filming these bands in the way I’d envisioned. Now that the film is complete, I can enjoy a live performance as a member of the swirling masses in the front row; but every now and then, I think “Damn, I wish I was filming this!”
What are you hoping will happen to the film, and what’s next for Kenneth Thomas, Film Director?
Well, the first goal is to have a successful DVD Release Party, which is taking place at The Metro, in Oakland, on October 15th. Evangelista, Oxbow and Ides of Gemini will be playing, so all three labels will be represented. We will be screening the film in its entirety, along with footage from the bonus DVD, so it’s going to be a packed music and film fest! A similar music/film lineup is being planned for Montreal on November 21st, with Hangedup, a rad viola/drum duo on Constellation, playing before a screening of the film. It’s also playing at the Supersonic Festival in Birmingham at the end of October. Plans are also in the works for a mini-tour of Europe next spring. I’m stoked that the film is being presented in combination with live music performances, as this is why this film was made: the energy and excitement of these bands’ live performances are what drove me to document this moment in time, with these labels and bands embracing what I think is a true evolution of that early punk rock DIY spirit. So by playing the film alongside these bands, and in these festivals, is the ideal way to present it – and it’s a real honor for me. I hope that I continue to make similar films and work with bands like these in the future, as well.
More on Blood, Sweat & Vinyl: www.bloodsweatvinyl.com
Still have questions for Thomas? Ask him in person at Blood, Sweat & Vinyl’s Bay Area Premiere and DVD Release Party, which will be held on October 15th at The Metro in Oakland. Evangelista, Oxbow and Ides of Gemini will be performing live.