Friday, September 22, 2006

transcript: steven blush, paul rachman

music is the insight to how people tend to see their surroundings. we use it to examine class, love, politics and--more often than not these days--brainless fun that gives an excuse to try and get laid. But in the 1980s, it could be considered much more tribal in how bands spread and what types of music affected those truly vindicated.
American Hardcore opened on Friday in New York and LA. It's essentially the reproduction of Steven Blush's 2001 book but brought about in a style so simliar to all those VH1 specials.
Luckily, director Paul Rachman sticks to his "upbringing" and replaces all the cute graphics with a very down-to-earth design and structure, filming most interviews in homes, offices (and in one great moment, H.R. from Bad Brains has a wedding progression taking place behind him.)

I spoke to both men last Tuesday. The article that ran is here. I was rather simple with the questions, trying my best not to ask them about A7 or how cool it was to travel around in a band and play shows. And to note, Rachman's next book, American Hair Metal, comes out October 1st. I brought it up to him at the start, but he really wasn't in the mood to discuss it. Still, the hardcore tribal scribe taking on hair metal...he did say it was more a "fun" thing to do, due to it's complete turn from his passion.

And then, I start out with a little aside:

ISO: So, I never knew that you guys called [people from D.C.] "Washingflorians."
Paul Rachman: [laughs] That was just what us New Yorkers called you.

When did you guys start to collaborate for film? Back in 2002?
PR: It was actually earlier than that. I had moved back to New York from Hollywood in 1999. I ran into Steve on the street and he said he was finishing the book, and I had this instant impression in my head of what the film should be. I had all this old footage of my own, we were both there. We started shooting interviews in December of 2001.

SB: It was a very easy decision for me. I had known paul from back in the day and we had kind of an on-and-off relationship just cause he had moved to L.A. and he had originally lived in Boston. We knew each other from the scene; Paul had gone to Hollywood and made some of the classic rock videos, like Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box,” Temple of the Dog “Hunger Stirke,” Pantera “Cemetary Gates.” Not to mention all the old Bad Brains videos, so it was really a no brainer for me. And I think we made the film with the same ethic, as the music was: totally do it yourself, independent, no funding and pure artistic vision.

What I found really curious was how the film parallels how the book was structured. I heard about the bus trips..

SB: You hear about the Georgetown Punks and all that stuff. That was what inspired me. I come from the New York area, I had caught the tail-end of the punk/new wave thing. it was very urbane and artistic driven. I came to D.C. and there was this new kind of punk rock and it was made by upper-middle class kids from Northwest DC or the outlying suburbs. It took a little while to wrap my head around the fact that we had always heard of the punk model of these kids struggling on the street, and here it was the opposite. What I realized very quickly was that if you’re alienated, anything’s valid. It’s a pure vision it has nothing to do with what kind of job your dad has. If you’re alienated or a misfit, you belong in the scene. That was very powerful to me, I think that’s why we separated ourselves from the original punk movement. We were the hardcore punks, the manifestation, the most intense punk. That’s what we got from it, we took punk and made it into an American form. That’s what was exciting to me about it, the idea that I’d listen to the Clash and they’d talk about all these things that were not American and were not anything I could relate to as much as I loved the music. That’s what I think what was so important about the hardcore bands, they brought in a pure American spirit to the punk rock ideals.

PR: it was a very pioneering spirit, treading ground that had never been treaded. Coming up with music that had never been heard before, it was against all grain. It was a true movement rejecting what was around us. I’m from New York, but I went to college in Boston and I just didn’t fit in. it wasn’t the perfect fit to college life up there. When I was exposed to hardcore it just changed my life, something told me I identified with this. i felt it in my gut. I needed more, I wanted more. I needed to be part of “this,” that this was going to be a tribe I wanted to be a part of. It was very inviting.

The subtitle for the book was “A Tribal History,” but it’s that now it’s been taken off the posters.

SB: It’s funny because now it says “the history of punk rock ’80-’86,” which we never really intended to put out there but when it was put on there it actually made sense. That wasn’t really our idea. We used it somewhere else, when we were at Sundance we kind of said it--

PR: When we had a work in progress [at Sundance] we kind of sued it. Steven’s book is very, very detailed. Steven was able to take this underground, somewhat messy subculture moment in history and structure it into a chorological, historical order. He really served as a historian to the movement and that was not something easy to do for people who were within it. As much as we were a part of it, the knowledge of this national movement happening in perfect sync—we were unaware of that. Steven’s book was really able to put that into context. When we started the film, my vision for the film was to really differentiate the film from the book in the sense that the film needs to flow. When you write a book, you can edit words. You can reconstruct certain sentences, you can’t do that in film. You can’t cut—edit people in a certain way in a movie like you do for a book. I knew before we starting that the film was going to have a different flow, and we be able to hit upon moments similar to the book, like the moments about the Boston or Washington D.C. scenes. But people don’t talk that way, and the flow isn’t the same. the movie is an extension of the book, that it’s this is a first person accounting of these peoples’ own experiences set at a certain time. And that flow in a documentary, you come two [or] three years into a film and the film starts telling you what it wants to be, what it needs to be. Cause you go, “well technically THIS happens here,” but you cut that in and it disrupts everything. It was really important to create a film that just made sense in the context of what people were saying instinctually. We didn’t go in with questions that set ourselves up to get the same answers again that are in the book. There was kind of a little shift in that, that’s how the two things worked together, the book and the film work together but are different.

SB: The book is certainly for people who are fans of the music. It goes into excruciating minutia of facts and figures, times and places. We didn’t really feel that-- our film was for a broader stage. To bring to a larger audience, it’s not necessarily just for punk rock types or the initiated. We wanted the uninitiated to get what was going on, that this was more than music. It was a way of life, a defiant stand against conformity that had never been seen before.

Have you guys caught Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey at all?

PR: I hadn’t seen that yet. I know it’s been going to festivals a lot, and it had a limited release. I’ve just been so busy with this film, I haven’t seen any movies.

SB: I wanted to see that, but it’s been like 2 years since I’ve seen a movie.

It’s a weird coincidence since he uses a genealogy that the map in AH really seems to mirror, at least in terms of influence and scenes.

SB: You know, even with the book, the whole thing was about the geography of it. We were just up in Toronto [at the film festival] and people were saying “well what about the Canadian scene?” All I can say this was a purely American scene. It wasn’t like the Bad Brains could drive up in a van with no working papers and a bunch of crazy guys in a beat-up van and think you’re going to get through Canadian customs. There may have been places here and there around the world where it was kind of close to what was going on,. But it was something totally different, so the geography was key. The traditional model of music—anything that was cool, punk, underground in anyway—was New York, LA , maybe Chicago, probably San Francisco. What made hardcore different probably was the map. The idea that you could go from LA to San Diego to Phoenix to Reno to Seattle to Portland.

PR: And you had to hit all the little towns in-between to make ends meet.

You said research on the book was exhaustive, how did you work on this?

PR: It was a complete archival process. We go on the road, we’d shoot 10, 15 interviews. Come back and log them, digitize them, edit selects and find the story. Same thing with photographs: we had the archive from the book research and we found new pictures. I had a lot of footage I had shot in the early 80s when I was in college in Boston, we found a lot of footage. You reach a point where you start this film—I think 2004 was really this hard moment that now we have 80 hours of interviews—we ended up with about 120. We had 50 hours of footage, and it’s just sitting there, we hadn’t gone through it yet. We had to take the task and go through it all. When I say we made this film in a very old fashioned way, there’s a lot of patience put into it. And it was all very instinctual. We didn’t make logs, there’s no transcripts. It’s really the process of weeding out by pure instinct, we knew from the book and our own personal lives, we already knew the story. We weren’t these documentary filmmakers attacking a subject that we were just interested in and knew nothing about. We knew how to connect with the material, we knew what the people were saying beneath and in-between their words. So that was the process of making the film, it was a very, very intensely personal process. We didn’t have researchers, we didn’t have a staff. It was Steve, myself, a camera, a mike and a laptop computer at all times. We made it in the basement, locked in the closet with a big sign on it, “do not disturb until finished.” We took that cut to Sundance and the executive who actually acquired the film was the one who turned it down when I brought him the book, looking for financing. He’s the one who ended up with the film as a distributor. Sony Pictures Classics has not changed one single frame of that film.

SB: we were even, “ a few things are a little too crazy, we’ll tone it down.” And they were like, “no, that’s your art. You stick with it.” And it was very impelling to have that.

PR: It wasn’t even that. Literally, the first public screening was at Sundance. Nobody saw this film before Sundance in January 2006, maybe 5 people. It was a true, true premiere. And you just kind of second guess, but then by hearing the reaction and watching it with further audiences, it was like, “you know what? We got it.” We set out to make the film like the music was made, and we had an opportunity to keep it that way. And that’s the decision we made. It is what it is and that’s what it remains.

SB: You asked about if this was all over encompassing and how overwhelming and intense the book was to write. This was the same way. It was, maybe even more so, we both ahd to push each other.

Was it hard to go back and talk to the same guys from 2 years ago?
SB: No, you know what it is? It’s like we have their trust. It’s kind of like a fraternity or being a war veteran. You share this weird past, once you had been a part of this you were kind of accepted. All these guys that are big and scary and tough, they were our friends. It was tough--

PR: it’s a very different process, coming into a person’s home with a camera and talking about this stuff. It’s a little more intense, a little more in your face. You have body language [coming] into play, you have this presnence that comes into play. It becomes a multi-dimensional rather than a voice, it heightens the experience.

I want to come back to how you call hardcore an “American” style. And you said before that Ronald Regan is the reason why hardcore emerged.

SB: I think that’s where it coalesced. Would there have been hardcore without Regan? Probably—I don’t know. But he was the center point of everything. Like they say in the film, every flyer had a picture of him, every poster, every song [Paul] just got a phone call out of the blue from the guy from Wasted Youth—he’s the guy with the bloody face on the cover [of the book.] Thier record was called Regan’s Hymns. So everything was about Regan. I think it was like what he represented, and what he represented was all the great progress that we had made in society—women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights—they were all being eroded with his election. That’s what it symbolized. Like they say in the film, it was a return to these bullshit fake 50s values and we weren’t having it.

PR: When Regan was elected in 1980 it was a joke, it really was a joke at first. It was like, “what the hell, how did this happen?” It’s like “Bedtime for Bonzo,” it wasn’t real. It felt so phony, it felt so unreal that it was the perfect thing to make fun of. We wanted no part of those values. It really was, “let’s turn the clock back to 1955!” And we absolutely did not want that. We were very, very clear about that. There was no second guessing that, so that fueled the energy within, I think.

I found a quote [Steven] said, that “Punk is not a D.I.Y. movement. It’s a bunch of guys doing coke on tour buses."

SB: Yeah, well. The original punk bands had raised the word “D.I.Y.” There was a movie called “D.I.Y.” and there was this idea of doing it yourself. But the punk bands really weren’t D.I,Y. They were on major labels, they had big agents. I remember a moment really blowing my mind was the Clash, a band I had really embraced as—I had seen their first American show, I had every record, every single. And all of the sudden they’re on tour buses opening for the Who at Shea Stadium. And thinking this is so far removed from what it was. Yeah, they were still “sex and drugs and rock and roll,” and we were—we loved the music but we were not a part of that culture. That’s what I was talking about there.

In the same vein, now that Henry Rollins has a show on IFC..

SB: We’re friends with all these guys and I’m a big fan of Henry Rollins. But I think even Henry would admit there’s a little bit of irony that the singer of Black Flag is a major TV host. The thing about Henry Rollins speaks to the heart of hardcore: everybody looked at these guys with shaved heads and thought they were a bunch of thugs and idiots. The movie proves, and I think these guys’ careers proved that they were really brilliant. You had to be smart to be a part of this scene for as ugly and as violent as it could be, we were all pretty smart in our own way. You had to be smart enough to know that you didn’t want to be part of mainstream culture.

PR: The movie speaks of a palace and time in history, and it clearly stays in that realm. The subtext, you walk out of the movie and go “wow, what the hell has happened? Why don’t we have this kind of visceral energy anymore?” That’s exactly what we want people to think of when they walk out. the environment changes, circumstances change. All the elements that allowed for hardcore in the early 80s, those intersecting elements of this visceral energy, this new music, this conservative government and a willing and excited audience, willing to carry it worth--all those things were in perfect sync in the early 80s.
I don’t think that’s true right now. Talking about these people’s careers or Henry and why he’s on TV, the environment changes. Opportunities change, you grow up. It’s just not the same anymore. It’s so many intersecting opportunities and circumstances that allow a movement to become. And there was this fusion of it all in early 1980 and that’s why it carried forth the way it did.

Well, you talk about the movement and especially today with youtube, myspace, all these promotional things—you have no reason for flyers anymore.

SB: There’s almost too much information. One thing that made hardcore interesting was there was no information network, it was very primal, there was no radio playing--WNYU had a show that Jack Rabid was on. You really had to cue yourself in, you had to dial into tis. It wasn’t just like passively sit back and get this information. You had to really dig. I think the fact hat you had to do that is why everybody embraced it so much. It was so all encompassing, but also so tough. It was really tough to find out about a gig or know what to do. I want to the George Washington University and I was probably going to end up a lawyer. Once I experienced this music, it wasn’t going to happen. I promoted punk shows, I became a writer. Somehow I ended up where I am today. It’s a very different thing, some people said to me “oh, it was very brave of you to step out of this conventional thing and not take that path.” It was scary, I starved and I’ve gotten ridiculed. I think all these guys share the same thing. I those guys you see in the movie,, you might say they’re heroes. Talk to them about how their life was 10 years ago when nobody cared about this stuff. It was hard, the Circle Jerks get laughed at. All these bands,. It was a bad time.

PR: It was very, very hard. What it taught me was to never give up, to stick by your guns. As a career as a filmmaker, you’re going to have your ups and you’re going to have your downs. If you give up, you’re not going to have that up. It really taught me that here is this ethic of like, “this is what I’m committed to doing and this is what I love doing and I’m never, ever ever going to give up. This si what I’m going to continue doing.” There was a certain ethic back then of being part of this underground and wanting to stay that way that still resides in me. As much as I went to Hollywood and had this music video career for 10 years and directed all these music videos at a time when MTV was still playing them, it was great. But I found myself still falling back into the underground with the Slamdance Film Festival and starting that. I always find myself falling back into that because it’s not a conscious decision, it’s just what I’m drawn to. The fact that it teaches you not to be afraid, it taught me not to be afraid of my failures, not to be afraid of my mistakes. Not to be afraid of any of that. And to never, ever ever give up. Because if you even think of giving up, you’re never ever going to get there.

Wrap up: you said you never made a documentary before, and said that the doc is the new “indie film.” What did you do? Out there watching old docs.

PR: Right, well, no. my filmmaking has always been instinctual. I’ve never modeled myself on something else for some reason. It was always raw instinct, and it’s because of the way I picked up a camera—I picked up a camera because of hardcore and started shooting. When I went to Hollywood--by 1988 I was in Hollywood, I was at this company, Propaganda Films, it was David Fincher’s company. It was like ego central. It was Hollywood ego central. I always had a challenge in my career: I directed 110, 120 videos. I swear to god, there was only 11 that I like. Part of my problem was, a lot of music video directors do a video and then do 10 that look alike. And you kind of know what you’re buying, “oh, I want the video that looks like this video and that guy who makes those videos that look like this.” You work a lot, you become popular on the air more. You look at my work and none of them look the same. I always went with my instincts and I took risks. Sometimes those instincts were horrible. If you get a mediocre song with a dumb band and you think you’re trying to make them look cool, it doesn’t work. But I would take those risks. That whole thing of when I started this documentary was I really looked at what I knew about the subject and I looked my experience, my experience as a filmmaker and particularly as an editor. My editing is what got me into directing. It was all about gathering the stuff and telling the story that resided. Everything was instinctual. I stripped away everything I learned as a filmmaker. It was like back to the raw basics, don’t worry about aesthetics at all, just throw them away. How do you transition from Boston to Los Angeles? Well, you cut. You make it hard and you make it loud and it works. There wasn’t any kind of special effects or how do we bring people into this? The thought process was purely simple. I think because of that, you really tap into this inner energy and you let your subjects do all that work. You let their words, the music and the images do all the work and you’re just organizing it. I think there was a certain purity in the process that allowed this film to have this kind of inner voice, this inner message, somewhat personal. I think everybody feels something within them maybe when they watch it. You know, “there’s something here that I like and I want to be part of it but I can’t be part of it anymore.” Or something like’s somewhat of the magic of picture and sound and its power. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries, just from organizing Slamdance, particularly the early years when I was really programming and stuff. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. When I look into my own films, I just become kind of inward for some reason. It’s just my instincts. I was never, ever good at executing other people’s ideas. When somebody came to me to do music videos and said, “oh we want the video like this one, some hot chicks and cool colors!” they asked me to execute that and I just really sucked at it. When I kinda came up with, when I did Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box,” I was feeling the mood and I got this fax from the singer. That just had this scribbled fax, “ a barn with animals” and that’s all it said. And I was like, “huh, that’s interesting” and I just came up with this whole environment for the song. That’s just the way I work best, basically just trusting my instincts, not doubting them, not being afraid to fail and fuck it—just put yourself out there and take those risks. I learned that from hardcore. I learned that from being on the road in a band and not knowing where the hell you’re going. It just teaches you a certain ethic. I always perform better like that than if I try too hard to assimilate something else that’s more commercial. It’s taken me 20 years to trust that even more.

Last: the rise of “hardcore” in lexicon…how “core”
PR: We were just at the Toronto Film Festival and we get all these boxes of gifts and everything. There was a curling iron—my girlfriend opened this case—for short hair and it said “hardcore” on it with tattoo symbols. I couldn’t believe it, I said, “look, this is a hardcore curling iron!” I had never seen that before.

SB: We worry a little bit. It’s a word now in wrestling. It’s a word, we saw the sports channel in Canada, what was it called?

PR: The Hardcore News.

SB: Or this is hardcore.

PR: They sell cars with that word now. I--

SB: it’s not really about the music right now. There’s plenty of really good bands out there right now. That’s not really the issue, but what do they do with it? You have this little platform to do something or make things happen. It’s like when Ian MacKaye talks about in the film, you get signed to a label, they give you millions of dollars, do some drugs and it all becomes really disposable. So what do you do with your platform? Do you sit there and go “Waaa” and get fucked up and get laid, or do you seize the moment? Though I’m not really a fan of Green Day, I do give them a lot of props for going to all those 13-year old kids and preaching revolution to them and anti-Bush. You gotta seize it for what you have. That’s what I’d like to see more of: less bands telling me that they’re hardcore, and more bands trying to change the world in their own little way.

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