Categories
Interviews

Tom Smith and Rat Bastard

Tom Smith and Rat Bastard

Tom Smith and Rat Bastard

Tom Smith and Rat Bastard

A baker’s dozen years ago I wrote a musician’s profile for another publication, opting to give considerable space to the musician’s own words — direct quotes in lieu of my wry commentary. The piece was unreturned for my corrections; rather, an editor embellished my writing. I was paid. I made some noise. And if so-called noise/music is your thing, not my grumbles but speaker rumble, feedback, howls, whispers, volume, drone, glitch, tension/release or pure unease, then prep for an overview of two Americans who’ve stayed busy recontextualizing “noise music” for nearly four decades.

So, have you heard of Tom Smith? What about Rat Bastard? What about To Live and Shave in LA? International Noise Conference? Let me begin with Herr Smith and some name-dropping to whet your blade and wet your whistle. Smith performed with Pussy Galore and recorded with Mike Stipe. With Mr. Bastard, Shave iterations have included Andrew WK and Thurston Moore, and Smith made a film with the legendary Doris Wishman. Its title? “Dildo Heaven”. And Rat Bastard is the King of Miami. Ready for ‘sup? Good.

Smith’s personal and professional history will largely frame this feature. Rat’s truncated tale will also be told. The frame is askew, as if a Suprematist woodsmith prostrate under barbed wire fencing was stretching for the pasture cubensis then realized his left index finger was MIA. Gulp.

But seriously, read commentary about Smith, or Rat, or by Smith and Rat, and Imagism crosses words and puzzles. In my case, loose ends were tied and the breadth of their collective work better understood.

• •

Upon Smith’s upbringing in Adel, Georgia in the ’50s-’70s, and early fondness for sound:

My dad was a skillful mechanic and he cobbled a car, driver and small team together. I was six or seven. Those quarter-mile figure-eights were so extraordinarily loud. The announcer’s voice would sputter through the threadbare PA system. Cones wired to utility poles, basically. That’s a holy text for me. That, and the hum of a high-tension line about 60 feet from my bedroom window on High Street, and the mournful hiss of tractor-trailer tires on wet asphalt. Highway 76 to Nashville, GA. Those were divine revelations.

Then splitting Georgia for NYC with Adel friend and noted producer Don Fleming:

Don and I, and doubtless thousands of others, felt the change was coming. In ’76 I left university and drove straight to CBGB, like the hayseed naif I was. The door was open. Lenny Kaye was inside. True. We talked about “Nuggets” and “Horses.” That was my intro. I stayed for maybe half a year until I was totally broke and had dropped to about 145 pounds from having too much fun!

And eventually back to Georgia, Athens to be exact. Fertile college town that it was, Smith found collaborators and instigators and so Boat Of came to be. When we corresponded mid-March, Smith had news of Boat Of, his first band and the (if I do say so long-awaited attention to these fictive and latter-day recordings:

Right now — this very sec — I’m prepping the Boat Of comp cassette for Hitomi Arimoto’s label in Osaka. I haven’t listened to these recordings so fully in decades. There’s some crazy good stuff in there. Humility check and all manners noted. Still, pretty decent! Hitomi is a noise freak and he wanted the more outré material — the stuff that in retrospect might be described as proto-noise. About 65 hours whittled down to 60 minutes. That’s my ambit. I’m looping segments from each tape to create composite windows into the various moments. 1979-1983. I was tasked with the limitation of a 60-minute cassette, so I went through all the extant recordings and turned all of them into non-static, two-minute loops, reflective of our initial aesthetics.”

Let’s say the reader missed Boat Of. What were they about?

Tom Smith

photo by Walter Wlodarczyk
Tom Smith

I got to Athens in ’79. I’d known Mike Green since maybe ’76, but we became pals in ’77. I was working at some dopey pizza joint at Emory Square and I was wearing a red sweater backwards. We started talking, and stayed in touch. I heard of a vacancy at 270 Cobb, aka the Cobb Institute. What a rogue’s gallery. Mike lived there, as did the David Gamble and Vic Varney (aka Method Actors). A cast of characters passed through on a daily basis. We lived a very debauched existence — it was wonderful. Concurrently, Mike and I were working on Prepared Party, which soon became Pre-Cave (summer of ’80). Carol Levy joined us in May; Stipe in late summer. By autumn we were called Nest (adj.) — our first gig (40-Watt Club, October) featured Carol, Stipe, my then-girlfriend and me. Sadly, we forgot to record it. A good turnout, maybe 85 people? We stayed Nest (adj.) through the new year.

Our second gig was at a Valentine’s Day party at the Cobb Institute (also unrecorded). We took another break while Mary and I played at being married in a snug log cabin lodge in south GA, but reconvened in May for our debut as Boat Of, again at the 40-Watt. Me, Carol, and Mike Green. This one was recorded, as were all subsequent others. No more name changes followed, even though the original notion was to switch out the moniker with each performance. It was a conceit which crumbled as soon as we were asked back to play a venue a second time!”

During our electric conversation, it occurred to me that Smith’s philosophy of “PRE” (more to follow) was too ambitious, or maybe even a lark. It was neither, rather being an example of American underground music the sort escaping the pages of Trouser Press. I wondered aloud about the formality or informality of the sonic world he crafted, one informed in large part by Marcel Duchamp and Henry Miller. Lee Perry’s “Super Ape” and Roxy’s “Editions of You.” As Smith qualified, “That’s really all it took.” So I pressed:

It may smack of arrogance, but these sounds have always been with me. Willful, demonstrative, and intuitive partners help hone one’s attack. We (Boat Of) weren’t mimicking the WJIZ / WBIT / WCUP spots and programming, but were rather excited by their de trop formalism. In other words, they hewed to downmarket formulae, and this seemed a glaring, blaring metaphor for our conception of dub and musique concrète, as we attempted and, in retrospect, routinely we were distancing those notions from context. The tape edits and manipulation played a big part in it as well. I had no role models, as I was using cassettes, but of course I knew of Cage, Schaffer and Henry. When I heard Holger Czukay’s “Canaxis” for the first time, about two years after Boat Of morphed into Peach of Immortality, I realized that the sort of looping I did was really nothing new; aesthetic linearity is def a thing. The germ drifts, regardless if you’ve never rubbed up against its initial host. There’s a lot of turntable work going on in Boat Of. I loved Boat Of so much, but after years of struggle and never catching a break with releases, management, proper tour planning, etc., the key membership drifted away. The last two DC gigs were just me (with local guests), perplexing the fuck out of the Dischord / Tiny Desk Unit types with ‘beautiful music’ loops…”

• •

At this juncture you may wish to hear Boat Of. Link included to Smith’s own Karl Schmidt Verlag label. Given the Boat Of releases and June 2018 To Live and Shave in LA tour, please explore. Smith was also a founding member of Peach of Immortality, a Washington, DC band which shared rehearsal space and tour dates with a very young Pussy Galore. Nothing comes between me and the promised link: tomsmithksv.bandcamp.com

• •

Onward … To Live and Shave in LA formed after Peach of Immortality. Those aware of South Beach’s Rat Bastard and his sensational International Noise Conference, near-residency at Little Haiti’s Churchill’s, Laundryroom Squelchers, and various other Miami/South Florida musical endeavors may know Shave. Way back in 1990. TLASLA got busy. The Fates provided me several opportunities to see the original line-up of Smith, Bastard, and Ben Wolcott. ’94-’97. And I reviewed Shave releases for the late Muckraker zine, a Midwest noise/improv magazine, as well as Ink 19. See, hear:

A partially-instinctive list of modifiers for the Shave sound: corpulent, Sweet 16, hybridized, id, ego, superego, perspiration, pyloric, swoled, La Brea, homiletic, authentic, AT&T&T&A, long distance runners, diplilatoric, “grease trap”, your mom.

• •

In their 27-year run, the band has overturned convention tables in near-circadian fashion. Band membership has varied save for Smith and Rat. One of the few constants? These two make a sound that’s the computer error in the programmer’s mind, correcting itself with twice the confidence of HAL.

As Rat remarks concerning TLASLA’s M.O.: (We are) “proving where music can exist forced and not forced at the same time.”

Then Smith:

Shave was just an exposed raw nerve in those days. The absence of reserve embarrasses me now, but at the time our ire seemed essential — at least to us. It’s far more refined today, but at least we never succumbed to stuffiness, proselytization, neuralgia, runny nose, scratchy throat… I met Rat on one of my first visits to South Beach, pre-move, maybe autumn 1990. I don’t have a lot of my old docs and address books here — most everything is in storage Stateside. Rat had a tiny record shop on Lincoln Road Mall, adjacent or attached to his studio, Sync. I came to MB for love. Friends hooked me up with an audio gig at Telemundo (where I moonlighted nights in the production lab — I edited and EQd the first Harry Pussy LP there, as well as remastering lots of unissued Peach of Immortality albums, projects for various labels, proto-TLASILA material, etc.) and a substitute teaching assignment at Miami-Dade in their film department.

Rat Bastard

photo by Walter Wlodarczyk
Rat Bastard

I started recording at Sync as soon as I had a bit of money coming in. This was pre-DAW, pre-Internet, even pre-CD burning. The engineer originally assigned to me was a decent bloke but slightly behind the aesthetic curve and not really up to snuff on the gear. I worked through a lot of material nonetheless, and in that first year we completed five or so pieces that would end up on “30-Minuten Männercreme”. Rat came aboard in the fall of ’92 after I’d finally given up on the other dude. We knocked out the “Spatters of a Royal Sperm” EP in two sessions. We’ve been together, including quarrels, spats and hiatuses, for 26 years. He (Rat) helped change my life.

• •

These fellows do not sit still for long. The TLASLA record release output manic. Live (peep) shows 20 minutes and that’s that. I asked Rat about the contrast in to-the-damn-point live shows and richly considered studio work.

As Rat sees it, “balance is the key to everything” and as for one foot in front of 1,000,000 others’, he adds: “[We move] always forward and blow the moss out of our way.”

Please open links, ye seekers:

Smith’s archival skills (and output) with and beyond Rat’s collaborations exceed. Dig into this buffet to better understand salted and sugared soundbites and trust me.

• •

I’m hardwired with these aesthetics. There’s been little deviation. Push, push, push, push the damn thing ever forward. Away from the moorings. Rat wouldn’t describe our processes similarly — he’d quite likely not describe them at all. But he’s always felt it and got it and he’s been a remarkable partner and ally. Genre is obsolete, but limitations are perennial. I never wanted to plant a flag.

I just wanted to grow into me. Ever forward, away from the comforts and nicely unholstered stylistic digs to a less well-groomed but infinitely more rewarding plane of yearning. Of unknowing.

PRE is that trust in oneself.

The liberation that leads one to aesthetic abandon. The freedom to channel the signal directly from the source.

On Karl Schmidt Verlag, Smith’s imprint, home to books, outside music makers, varied Smith aliases:

OK! I thought I’d ask you to consider my German trio, Merkwürdig Riechnerv. (Pronounced M’airk-voor-disch Reek-nairf. It means “odd olfactory nerve.”) We’ve been at it since 2012, and in our new lineup since early 2017. Lots of releases, some touring. Check out last November’s “Spit It Out Versions” 10″. Rat cut the entire run on his lathe in Miami Beach.

And “Approach to Fear: Regeneration.” That was an international-ish response to the rightward tilt, and prob the largest overt protest project of 2017. Quite the wee meow in terms of sales potential, but more than a few decent souls were moved by it.

Rat Bastard

photo by Walter Wlodarczyk
Rat Bastard

Requisite tour info and Cracker Jack surprises follow. Let’s say you’ve read this because of the earlier name-checking. You cringed or mobilized. Maybe even were lost for an hour or so in the Smith and/or Rat links and mole holes. That’s cool. Smith knows something that might encourage the reader if she/he could not shake the “what ifs”:

Of course, one must remain social! Mingling and mixing and fidgeting and ruminating — there’s nothing more satisfying. It’s our species! As for the art bit, though, if you’re not messianic about it, absolutely dead sure about yourself and what you know to do — well, it’s likely complete rubbish, isn’t it? PRE is the backlight that one must extinguish. Others less adept will pore over speculative contexts. TLASILA’s job, my job is to obfuscate, to encrypt.

• •

Check local live listings as TLASLA may play your town in June or July 2018. Smith’s Wavefarm DJ sets are spectacular, a rain-glazed Bobcat scraping through the muck to di-ahhh-mons — wavefarm.org/archive?q=R.E.M.&sites=&types= — and most recently To Live and Shave in LA’s “The Death Truth” album just got picked up for release by Independent Woman out of New Zealand. TLASLA will tour east of Mississippi June and July 2018.

Personal favorites:

Cover photo by Walter Wlodarczyk, www.walterwlodarczyk.com

To Live and Shave in LA: toliveandshaveinla.bandcamp.com

Categories
Interviews

Ben Vaughn

Ben Vaughn

You may not have heard Ben Vaughn’s name, but it’s highly likely you’ve heard his music or influence. Besides being an accomplished musician and songwriter, with a staggering discography of creative material, he has also served as a producer (including Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats, and albums with Los Straitjackets and Arthur Alexander, among others) and session musician. There is also an entire career in TV music, scoring brief sonic masterpieces for the likes of 3rd Rock from the Sun, That ’70s Show, that has come and gone, searing its sounds into the subconscious of anyone who watched TV between 1995-2005. These days, you can be seduced by the decade-spanning sounds of his syndicated radio show (also available in podcast form), The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn, produced from his Relay Shack home/studio, on the edge of the Mojave desert in California. We got a chance to talk to Ben on a Tuesday morning in February, shortly after the vinyl release of his monumental Instrumental Stylings album, available from Bar/None Records.

• •

Good morning! Am I calling the desert?

I’m in the middle of Mardi Gras. It’s totally insane. Two parades are going by my window right now, I just came up from the street and it is mayhem out there.

I had no idea… is this a tradition for you?

Actually, this is only the second year I’ve gone. I’m going to try and do it every year for the rest of my life now.

Sounds a world apart from the Relay Shack.

I’m about as far as you can get before electricity ends for 80 miles, outside 29 Palms. I bought a house out there about 20 years ago, when I was doing TV music. I was really in the trenches in Hollywood, and everyone around me was having nervous breakdowns. I thought it might be contagious, so I had to have a weekend place I could go to. I bought what was a shack at the time, out in the middle of nowhere, and built onto it a little bit. I split my time between the Mojave and an apartment in Santa Monica, but I spend most of it in the desert.

The fringes of the desert are an interesting place. There are people who are trying not to be found trying to squeeze a living out of the thinnest of margins.

It’s a magical place. You’re either going to react favorably to it or not, there’s no in between. I’ve had people come out to my place and the quiet freaks them out. They can’t handle how quiet it is.

It’s surprising to think that 2018 is when Instrumental Stylings gets its vinyl release.

In 1994, when it first came out, vinyl was considered completely dead, there wasn’t even a boutique industry or anything. It was gone. It wasn’t an option if you were putting out a record at the time.

Did you want it to be on vinyl at that time?

I’ve always wanted everything to be on vinyl. I never embraced CDs, never really warmed up to the idea. When I started my career my albums would only come out on vinyl or cassette, so my background is side A, side B. My original training in the business was to create an album that has two sides, and that completely fell apart when CDs came out.

In 1994, if you thought about the reissue of an album in the 21st century, it would have been in terms of a new remastered diamond cube, or some other high-tech format that is not vinyl.

It sounds great. When they sent me the test pressing, it was the first time I’d ever heard it on vinyl. I was really happy when I heard it.

Were you involved in remastering?

Just in approving the master. I made a few notes and they made a second pass, but boy, it was great, great to be working again, to be actually listening to a reference disc on a turntable. It was beautiful.

Are there any plans for releasing other material of yours on vinyl?

I have a new solo acoustic record that I’m getting ready to play out. Labels in France and Spain always put my stuff out on vinyl no matter what I do, because I have consistent fan base over there. They never stopped with vinyl in Spain, it’s crazy. As far as Bar/None goes, this is the only thing we’ve talked about. I have another record with them that maybe we’ll do next, but I don’t know. Instrumental Stylings is the only project we’ve actually talked about going through with.

Any plans to do release your TV and film music?

It’s a question that’s come up a few times. I don’t own it, because when you do work for hire, the production company owns the masters and the publishing as well. I’m not even sure where that stuff ends up. I did most of my TV shows for a company called Carsey Werner, 3rd Rock, ’70s Show, pilots and everything. I’m assuming somewhere there is a digital library of all the music that all the composers that worked for them did, but the company went out of business about ten years ago, and you never know where anything ends up when that happens.

Do you think you’ll ever go back into making that type of music?

Not really. I played it out. I did it for eleven years, and I didn’t feel like I was learning anything anymore. The Instrumental Stylings record is a good example of where I was when that started. I was in the record business, and I had a record deal, and I would record an album of twelve songs and go out on tour for a year and half and then deliver another collection of twelve songs.

That went on for four albums, but I wanted to be writing every day. I wanted a reason to write music every day, because that’s what really feels the most natural to me, but the record business doesn’t give you that opportunity. So I decided to go to LA to see if I could do some film music. Pulp Fiction had just come out, and everybody was looking for surf guitar at that moment, and it’s one of the things that I do.

I immediately got work as a session guy on a bunch of films, then 3rd Rock came along. It was great because I knew I was an artist, but I wasn’t sure if I was a craftsman, if I could really work with deadlines and crank it out. In the record business, deadlines can be moved, they’re very lenient with the artists in the record business. But not TV. If you’re the composer, your stuff is going to be on the air Tuesday night at 8:30, whether you’ve finished it or not. There’s no second guessing, that’s a luxury. Your first idea has to be your only idea, because they’re going to pull it out of your hands and put it on the air.

And also, when it’s done, that’s it. It’s done. You move on to the next one.

Whether you like it or not, it’s done. You have to really know what’s going to be good, and know really fast, and have your angle on what this piece of music needs to be, and you have to work quickly. It’s a very sobering job for an artist. I was curious if I could work under pressure and write every day. It cured me of any neurosis I might have about having a writer’s block. You can’t afford to have one. You can’t freeze, you have to keep moving.

Doing that for 10-11 years, near the end, it didn’t feel like a challenge to me anymore. I’d proven to myself I could do it. And I’d also proved that I could exist in that field without getting fired for being too weird. I stayed the course, but it started to become repetitive and that was when I realized it was time to step away.

Ben Vaughn Ensemble, 2015

Ben Vaughn Ensemble, 2015

These days, you have a radio show slash podcast.

It’s a real manic thing for me, because I grew up in the Philadelphia area obsessed with radio. Philadelphia radio is unique. It’s like nothing has changed. Doo-wop never died in Philly. It’s such a great city to listen to the radio. When I was growing up, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a musician or work on the radio, because they both seemed equally great to me.

So when I retired from TV music, I came back to this. I didn’t want to go on Sirius XM and do anything official or legitimate. I wanted to start station by station, and build a relationship. I started with WEVO in Memphis, I was on the air there for about a year. I wasn’t that great yet. The records I was playing were great, but my presentation left a little somethingg to be desired. Once the show started to really sound like I wanted it to sound, then I started pitching it to other stations. Now it’s syndicated to 23 stations, and it’s really cool because I have relationships with every program director at every station.

Do you hear from fans?

All the time. I get a lot of emails through the website, and Facebook. It seems like the kind of records I’m playing, and the way I group them together, there isn’t much of that going on because of the enthusiasm of the people I hear from. To me it’s a no-brainer, this is the way a radio show should sound and I don’t really give it much thought. But it seems to be an unusual show that I’m doing.

But you’re just basically playing music from your personal library.

Yup. I love country music, and I love punk, and I love easy listening and bossa nova, and jazz and blues and folk… when I was in high school it was kinda rough for me because you had to take sides, about whether you liked disco, or progressive rock, or punk, or the Grateful Dead. I was listening to Waylon Jennings and Lou Reed. I just kept my mouth shut, because my friends were intent on forming social groups based on what kind of music you liked, and I was always the odd man out.

My radio show reflects how I listen to music at home. I love pretty much everything. There’s no genre… [pause] smooth jazz I’m a little cool on, I will admit. Not a huge smooth jazz fan.

It has its place.

It has its place. But then again, so does dentistry.

Sometimes you need a dentist*. You’re really enjoying the radio part.

I’m loving it. I have a really big record collection, and now that MP3s are available, you can find all sorts of crazy stuff without having to track down the actual album, which could take you years. I love it because my relationship with my record collection is intimate again. When I was doing TV music and I was working around the clock, my collection was there, but I wasn’t laying on the floor in the living room, pulling out albums and exploring. The radio show is a great excuse to have to do it. I have to do it now.

Do you have a weekly ritual to get ready for your radio show?

I always pick three songs that are worth talking about. Something historical, or something about the recording, or the artist or style. Then I just start listening, and because I’ve painstakingly figured out the best sequence for a lot of albums, I have a feeling for how many uptempo tunes need to happen before a ballad, when something with a minor key should come after something in a major key. Drum breaks… every reggae song and every ska song starts with a drum break — boom, b-r-rah-pah — and then whatever the song is going to be, it’s there. Those things I take into consideration when I’m putting the playlist together, so it works as one piece of music, like a suite.

I listen as a musician, and as a lyricist too, and I’m always aware when there is a theme of some sort. I don’t try to overdo it, because the death of good radio is when you become too clever for your own good, and something that looks great on paper because it’s thematic may sound horrible on the radio.

When a song is fading out in the headphones, I’m always incredibly happy that I’m doing this right now. Sometimes I have to drag myself to record the show, but once I start I’m in, 100%. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world, turning people on to music, and nurturing myself at the same time by listening to these songs.

It sounds like this career you have going in broadcasting is fairly sustainable, too.

Yeah, it is. I’m still writing songs, and I still tour over in France and Spain. I’m going over to France in a couple months. The life that I have now, I don’t have to hustle, but I love to work and I love stay busy, and creative, and curious about music. It’s working out really well.

And here I am at Mardi Gras, watching marching bands go by. “Rock And Roll” by Gary Glitter is incredibly popular down here with these bands. Of all the great New Orleans music, “Li’l Liza Jane” and all those second line numbers…

• •

You can listen to The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn on the radio in selected cities (check out www.benvaughn.com) or by subscribing to the podcast (available on most major platforms). Imitation Wood Grain and Other Folk Songs, Ben Vaughn’s new solo album, has become available on CD Baby since this interview took place.

* Said the person that had a crown put in the day before.

Bar/None Records: www.bar-none.com

Categories
Interviews

Dan Baird

Dan Baird

Dan Baird, formerly with the Georgia Satellites and now making much noise with Warner Hodges in Homemade Sin stunned his fans and friends with his mid-2017 announcement that he was taking time off the road due to a cancer diagnosis. We sat down with the Nashville-based rocker to see what 2018 holds.

Q: You had to take some time off due to illness. How is your health, and are you still in treatment?

A: Yes, I have CLL, which is a form of leukemia that I inherited.

It’s a slow mover to start with, in my case it got to movin’ along pretty quick after knowing I had it for 2 years. Its trajectory looked like I’d have to deal with it 2019 or so. Not so at all.

Anyway, my oncologist knew what was up, and started my treatment (which ends the back part of January) and I was in remission after 3 months. I still have to finish the course of drugs to attempt to bury that dirty fucker, so I’m all in on that!

Q: In your absence, the rest of Homemade Sin kept touring. How did they manage that, and how was the reaction?

A: We had 2 guys that were willing, Warner and Mauro, and one guy that needed a paternity leave, so those two needed 2 guys to be stand-ins. Joe Blanton mixed the last 2 Homemade Sin records, wrote a buncha the songs with us, and was a general fan of what we/I do, so that was a natural.

Sean Savacool had one wild ride. Micke, our bassist, had to go be a new pop, and we needed a guy. Now, I knew this and went to work on it a month before the CLL hit. I went around to what I’d refer to as “the usual suspects”, struck out and asked Brad Pemberton who he thought would be good. He recommended Sean. I got in touch. He said he’d be willing if we were, then I got hit with my leukemia. Called him up, shot him straight and figured that would be that. Nope, Warner and Mauro wanted to give it a go with Sean and Joe. Well hell, get busy gents. They did.

I think the response in the states was okish. In Europe they fared pretty well, in the UK they did well, which was the order of the dates, so that all worked out fine.

Q: It seems that every week we hear of a musician needing help from medical bills, due to lack of health insurance. Has this affected you and your treatment?

A: That question gets a yes and no.

Yes, in the fact that we weren’t gonna be able to afford the drugs and treatment on our own. Now, we had good insurance and that was a great start. The oncologist office got us some grants to help pay for the really expensive drug (Gazyva) and their pharmacy division got us help with the pills (Leukeran).

We were put in touch with Music Health Alliance and they are a musician’s best friend about all the things you just don’t know about. Many forms of grants and aid. They know all of them and got us on a couple of big-time helpers.

No, in the normal “Quick, let’s do a fundraiser! Oh man we are fucked!” that plagues most of us musicians.

Q: You’ve generally never been outspoken on politics in public in your career. But the last year has seen a change to that. What brought that about? How is the nations “state of the union” as you see it?

A: That I tried to keep on my SoLow record, because it was mine alone, and I know that a singer “speaks for the band”. One doesn’t assume for anyone else. I did a song called “Get Loud” that has those undertones, but it’s nonspecific enough for me to feel ok about it in the band setting.

I’ve been and remain a life-long liberal. “Look Away” is what I assume you’re speaking about. That’s honestly the way I feel. Southerner that knows better. I used to think the south was going to try and move forward. Not sure if I’ll see an honest try in my lifetime.

Well, we got city folks and rural folks. They’re not seeing eye to eye. History shows us that the cities foretell the general populace’s path. The ruralites don’t much like it. The MAGA thing is pretty horrid to me. I know a thinly veiled message when I see one, and so do the ruralites. Still gotta ways to go.

So, we’re pretty much divided into those 2 camps right now. Not much give or take one way or another. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out.

Q: The last year we sadly marked the death of so many legendary musicians. I’d like to ask you about two. First, Tom Petty. I know the Satellites toured with him, any recollections from that time and of the man?

A: I’ll tell you my biggest thrill moment:

Benmont (Tench, Heartbreakers keyboardist) and I were backstage foolin’ around on their band’s rehearsal set up. He was drumming and I was playing guitar and singing. Well, Mike (Campbell, Heartbreakers guitarist) comes along grabs a bass and we start playing “Let It Bleed”. Stan’s (Lynch, drummer) not far behind, grabbing a guitar, then Howie (Epstein) and Tom cruise in and start hit the keyboard and and tambo respectively. This all took place within 30-40 seconds after we started playing the song. Everybody singing along and laughing, and I just kinda “come to” afterwards and realize just WTF is going on. I have never been so giddy in my life. I don’t expect to be again.

Now, as far as learning?

I wrote “All Over but the Cryin'” just a little while after that tour.

Mike’s economy got me thinkin, if I plan a solo out I could handle it. All those guys were great to us.

Tom’s passing hit everyone like a ton of bricks. Like anything you love, it can’t be replaced. You’re left with his work and memories. That’s what we all have.

The first time you heard “I Need to Know”, “Even the Losers”, “Freefallin'”, “You’re a Free Girl Now”. You don’t just replace that guy.

Q: Your Facebook page is adorned with the founder of AC/DC Malcolm Young’s guitar. How did his passing affect you?

A: In my world, there’s rhythm guitar. It’s important to me.

There’s a couple of guys in that realm that stand out for what they do. Keef on the swingin end of the spectrum and Malcolm on the drivin’ side. Now Mr. Richards can drive it too, and Mal could swing like hell inside that VERY disciplined rhythm section. You heard him and you knew who it was, and what’s about to happen. That’s success to me.

A total original on rhythm guitar. It’s really hard to do.

Q: What are your plans for 2018 and beyond?

A: Well I’d like to see beyond 2018 for starts. In between my suspect health and 45 trying to start a nuke out, yeah, it’d be nice to see another year or so.

Homemade Sin is heading back out in May, and starting work on a new record in March, so I got a lot to do.

www.danbairdandhomemadesin.net

Categories
Interviews

Jonas Carpignano

Jonas Carpignano

It has been two years since we last saw Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the African refugee from Burkina Faso who settled in the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro and who is the protagonist of director Jonas Carpignano’s much heralded debut feature, Mediterranea. What distinguished Mediterranea was its intimacy with Ayiva’s experience as a newly arrived immigrant, and this intimacy is continued in Carpignano’s second feature, A Ciambra, but with Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani boy, now teenager, whom Ayiva sporadically encountered in Mediterranea. As a resident of Gioia Tauro himself these last six years, Carpignano has a rare and honest understanding of his surroundings and the perspectives of the people who live in it, which enable him to create film experiences that are true to his fellow residents while being reflective of his own process of assimilating into the community.

Originally a peddler of small stolen goods in Mediterranea, Pio, in A Ciambra, has ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato), who subsists in the underground economy, the only economy that is accessible to the Romanis that offers any ability to ascend out of poverty. When a desperate need for Pio to contribute more to his family emerges, Pio develops a friendship and also somewhat of a partnership with Ayiva that draws into question Pio’s allegiances to his own family. As was the case with Mediterranea, A Ciambra is fervently committed to its central figure, Pio, and as a result, the film serves as the astute second installment of a triptych of character-driven films that aim to form a comprehensive examination of the town that Ayiva, Pio, and Carpignano call home.

We sat down with Jonas Carpignano during AFI Fest this past November and spoke at length about how his experiences with the people of Gioia Tauro shaped his approach to telling their stories.

Q: Lily Fierro: We recently watched Ettore Scola’s Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi, which focuses on a Romani family living outside of Rome and is also a really fine example of Italian grotesque cinema, a genre which also includes films such as Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy and Marco Ferreri’s Le Grande Bouffe. We think that a lot of people who see your film will probably connect it to either crime or neorealist genres, but, for us, we see your film, A Ciambra, as almost an update and a modernization of the Italian grotesque, mostly because it is completely unrelenting, which is a key feature of the grotesque. Even though the films that I mentioned somewhat play on comedy and yours does not, could you talk about your approach to making everything unrelenting, and in turn, perhaps updating and extending the grotesque?

A: Carpignano: I think that the major distinction to make, even though I love all of those films, is that you feel that those films look to contextualize those communities and those people within Italian society, and that is why I feel that those films come off as slightly comic, or completely comic, so to say. There is certainly a way of dealing with a real situation through humor, which is common in the tradition of comedy. I think that the major difference and the reason why people tend to connect my film more to the neorealist movement is that there is an idea, or better put, a desire here to make the protagonist of the subject matter also the protagonist of the film.

The goal of both Mediterranea and A Ciambra, and what was very important to me, was to show underrepresented communities, but through their actual experiences and not the way Italians experience these underrepresented communities. There is no let up. There is no moment to step back and say, “But this is the context that they live in.” This is their life from their perspective, and if it is not important to them, then it is not going to be important to us either. One of the things that people always harp on is, “Where are the Italians in these films?” and they always say to me, “Where is the port? Gioia Tauro is a major port town, so where is it?” For me, it is not important to show that because it is not important to the protagonist of the film. In Mediterranea, people always ask, “There is a mafia presence there. Why don’t you show that?” Well, if something is not important to Ayiva, who has just gotten off a boat, who is literally just looking for his next meal, and who is literally just looking for a way to bring his family over, then you will not see it. So, if the mafia is not going to be important to him, it is not going to be important to the film. It is the same thing with Pio. People always ask, “Where are the beaches in this town?” I’ll tell them, “Well, Pio never goes to the beach because Pio doesn’t swim.” So, if it is not going to be important to him, I don’t feel the need to stop and say, “This is his life, and also this is his context.” And I think that this is why my film feels so unrelenting, so to say, because they are systematically and dogmatically married to the perspectives of the people who are the protagonists of the films.

Q: Generoso Fierro: We can understand your exclusion of showing the mafia in the film as you have no need to contextualize things that your protagonists do not encounter as part of their experiences. However, that is not to say that Pio’s experiences and interactions are entirely insular to his own Romani community. A Ciambra captures Pio’s interactions with many people, and from them, we get a sense of the social structure that Pio sees and must learn to navigate. In one particular scene, where Pio almost gets run over by a car, and in the car we see a mirror with cocaine, you expose the different kinds of criminality that occur between the groups that Pio encounters. With the “Italians,” the criminality is seen through protection and strong-arming. With the Africans and Romani, their crimes are mostly petty ones and auto theft, yet with none of these groups do we see drug trafficking. Is your omission of narcotics sales a statement on these two groups’ limited powers of organized crime? Or, did you simply not experience that form of crime in these communities?

A: Carpignano: It gives me immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction when people draw these conclusions based on these small details because, in my own life in Gioia Tauro, I have to figure things out like that through small observations. I made a similar reflection a few years ago when I realized that no one here (in the Romani community) is dealing drugs, and no one in the African community is dealing drugs. And then one day, just like you see in my film, a car rolled up like that, and I remember Pio’s mom telling me to hide because those people were drugged up, and they were people from the “Italian” community, and that’s how I sort of managed to put it together. If you are going to be dealing drugs in that community, or in that society, you need to be in a different place in the social hierarchy than the Gypsies and the Africans, and the more I did research, the more I realized that that was true. There is a very strict hierarchy that the film tries to lay out, but not didactically, because I hope that the audience can piece it together through these little details—like I had to in my own experiences—so the fact that you did, brings me so much pleasure. Also, when we were first putting that scene together, my colorist said, “I don’t think that people can see the cocaine.” So, we put a little window on it, and we changed the shading and placed a mirror underneath—I wanted to make sure that it “popped.”

Pio Amato in A Ciambra

AFI Fest
Pio Amato in A Ciambra

 

Q: Lily: As you mentioned in the discussion after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, you are creating a triptych of Gioia Tauro. You started with Ayiva’s story in Mediterranea, and Ayiva continues his thread into A Ciambra, but did you write something that details Ayiva’s progression in between the two films? What are we to assume about Ayiva’s integration into this world in the time period between Mediterranea and A Ciambra?

A: Carpignano: I didn’t write it, but it was something that sort of wrote itself just because I live with him (Koudous Seihon). I have seen the difference in his, and I don’t want to say “status,” but position in that community. Whereas in the beginning he was just someone who picked oranges, years later, he has become someone who can move in a different way around Gioia Tauro because of his charisma and because he has been living there for so long. So, I have been able to see what should happen to Ayiva through what has been happening to Koudous and to many people as they sort of try to move into the underground economy. Obviously, there is no place for them in the actual economy; no one is going to give them jobs as we’ve seen in Mediterranea, so where do you go when you are sick of picking oranges? What is that next step? And naturally, that next step is participating in a kind of commerce that is somewhat underground in background. And, where are those relationships where a commerce role can exist for Ayiva? Obviously, they are between the gypsy and African communities, and not necessarily where the other communities exist in the town. How I see what happened to Ayiva between his arrival and now, is in some way, parallel to what happened between Pio’s grandfather and his family in the years since they settled and became part of Gioia Tauro. That process of becoming sedentary, of deciding that you are going to stay and live in a specific place, changes your occupations and your possibilities within this underground economy.

Q: Generoso: In regards to the underground economy, there is a particular scene in A Ciambra that suggests that, at least in Gioia Tauro, the Italians and the Romani might be growing closer by how the two groups set themselves apart from the newly arrived African immigrants. The scene we are thinking of here is when Pio’s older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) returns from prison and tells his younger brother about how the Romani and Italians joined forces in jail and distanced themselves from the African inmates.

A: Carpignano: I think that very rarely, when a new kid comes in, the last new kid says, “Let me help you make your life easier here.” Faced with the option of helping the new kid, the last new kid most likely will make a jump to be with the group that was there before them, and I think that is what happens here. There is now a sort of lower rung on the ladder, which inadvertently brings us closer to where we want to be, which is to this more established community. They are basically saying, “We may be Gypsies, and they may be Italians, but we are definitely more Italian than the Africans, and this place is more ours than theirs.”

Q: Generoso: You in fact have a scene in Mediterranea, which is what brought up our comparison to the Ettore Scola film that we mentioned earlier, where Ayiva begins to experience the harshness of the conflict against him and his fellow African immigrants, so he responds to a rat that enters his room by stomping it to death. It seems to suggest that we have a natural inclination to step on someone in a lesser position to gain some sense of control?

A: Carpignano: Wow, do you two read my emails? You just say a lot of the things that we talked about as we made the film that no one has ever written into an article. I am feeling so weird right now (laughs). Yes, that scene of Ayiva stomping on the rat is a statement that says: “This is the thing that is invading my space. This is the thing that is reminding me of where I am, so if I could kill that thing or distance myself from that thing…” This is a moment where his frustration can come out.

Q: Generoso: Thinking now about that change from being nomadic to sedentary, which is an essential theme in A Ciambra, you show this shift with a motif of citrus fruits (oranges and lemons) in both Mediterranea and A Ciambra. In Mediterranea, we paid close attention to how Ayiva eats the oranges that he picks. At first, he doesn’t eat them, but by the middle of the film, we see him beginning to eat the oranges, but he does so by only peeling away a small percentage of the orange peel and eating, as if he is slowly uncovering the community where he lives. By the end of the film, he is sorting out just the peels on a conveyor belt. You then begin A Ciambra with an image of a young Emiliano, Pio’s grandfather, when he was still a traveling Romani, slicing a lemon and drinking its juice, which then cuts to the present day, with Pio handling a lemon in his kitchen. Thematically this is one of our favorite elements of your first two features.

A: Carpignano: You know you two are killing me right now, because the scene that was the toughest for me to take out of the film is a scene after Pio’s brother comes back from serving time in jail, where he and Pio are sitting together the morning after their grandfather’s funeral in silence when Pio cuts a lemon and gives himself some citrus, and then he gives his brother a slice, and his brother eats it, and then the little boy comes in and grabs a piece of lemon and sits down in the chair.

Q: Generoso: Oh no, why did you cut this?! We so wondered why we didn’t see the citrus used as much in the film.

A: Carpignano: I am going to my editor’s wedding on Sunday, and I am going to make him pay (laughs).

Q: Lily: Also part of our sadness is that Generoso’s family is from Campania, and you know they have the prettiest citrus there, so we were a bit sad not to see it. (laughs)

A: Carpignano: Yes, it is the dominant agricultural element of that region. The plain is famous for the citrus industry. People say even further back that the ‘Ndràngheta started to form because of the bergamot, that bigger yellow lemony-looking citrus thing. The bergamot was one of the first things that they exported, and they cornered the market on that, and that was the beginning of their agricultural syndicates. So, citrus is a very prominent part of the plain, and that is where they got a lot of their commercial viability.

Q: Lily: Speaking of motifs, there is also a key visual motif of Emiliano and his horse that appears throughout the film. You begin A Ciambra with a scene showing Emiliano traveling with his caravan and his horse, and then, Pio sees his grandfather as a younger man with his horse as a recurring image/vision. Why does Pio see this? Is Pio one of the last of the members of the generation who is connected to the past of his grandfather, or is this past just romanticized because he has heard about it from his grandfather?

A: Carpignano: It is all of the above. This is very much Pio’s story, and I think that the film tries to, through being very specific through Pio’s experience, arrive to larger truths about the Romani community in general, and one of the most important things I think about that community is this solidarity that they feel that they have. History has a weight on all of us, and this sense of tradition is what makes Pio’s decision at the end the inevitable one. I think that the greatest limit and the greatest potential of this community is its solidarity, because, on one hand, they have created this really intense social network that has kept them alive for years. There, they always say, “No one here is going to die from hunger,” and that is is because they have each other’s backs. But in another way, Pio is unable to transcend the social architecture of that place because that tight knit community won’t let anyone else in or out, and I think that part of that is because they feel that they all come from the same tradition. They still refer to the others, mind you, they are as Italian as anybody, but they still refer to the others as “Italians” and themselves as “Gypsies.” And, why is that? It is because they believe that they have a past that is different from everyone else’s, and to me, that is what the horse represents. Pio needs to feel tied to the past in some way, shape, or form. He needs to feel as part of this tradition to justify, even to himself, betraying someone who might be even closer to him than his own brother. The sense of community, the identity politics that we all fall back on, is something that I think comes from this constructed identity that exists within many communities, and most specifically this one.

Q: Lily: Staying on Pio for a moment, another of his characteristics that we wondered about was his fear of closed spaces, specifically being enclosed in a space that is moving. What is the origin of that fear?

IFC Films

 

A: Carpignano: First of all, just speaking about the motifs, thank you for using the word “triptych” rather than “trilogy” before, because when you look at the great triptychs, they are really tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic, so to say. When you look at one of the great triptychs of all time, the Kieślowski Three Colors films, the things that tied those films together are not only the motifs and the use of color, but also the recurring actions. But speaking about Pio, specifically his claustrophobia, to me, that is less of a dramaturgical device as opposed to a psychological one—to come up with that and to put that in a film and find the right context for it, I had to get to know him better because that is something that actually happens to him. The elevator where Pio panics is my elevator, and that apartment is my apartment, and Pio has never gotten in the elevator to get to the apartment. Every single time, we had to go up and down the stairs to shoot that scene, and we had to rebuild the elevator, putting it on the terrace so that there is a removable wall for him. Pio is actually afraid of enclosed spaces, and he is actually afraid of things that go fast, and I find that to be incredibly fascinating because we are talking about people who historically were on the road in small spaces, in caravans, and in boxcars, moving together. Now that they have become sedentary, they almost have this aversion to these things. Moving too much, moving too fast, getting in an airplane, and getting in a train are things that he just would hate to do. And, that is why the train is there as a reminder in the background. There is the possibility of movement, of mobility, but now paradoxically, the gypsies feel more true to their tradition and their people and their identity by staying put. It is as if they have gotten this piece of land finally, and they are claiming it and saying that this is ours, and now that land is the source of their identity. So, that to me was something that was very important to put in the film, because in the end, when Pio is finally forced to move, he is enclosed in this tight space in this train, and he gets flashes of everything at this one point. He begins to freak out as he is put in the position to do something that he doesn’t want to do, and that connects him to his past, his present, and ultimately, that is where he gathers the courage to do what he needs to do. I felt that putting Pio in a position where he isn’t able to reflect on what he is doing, like when he is living through this phobia, this paranoia, brings out the raw emotions in him, and that is why I felt O.K. to open it up to that dream-like space again in that scene.

 

A Ciambra opens in theaters in New York January 26th, Los Angeles on February 2nd, and on demand on January 26th.

www.ifcfilms.com/films/a-ciambra

Categories
Interviews

An interview with Lucky Bamba

An interview with Lucky Bamba

Lucas Noguera Wainer, also known by his stage name ‘Lucky Bamba,’ is no stranger to success on an international level. In 2016, he worked as a producer and performing musician for the album Las Mejores Canciones De Navidad, which was the best-selling Christmas album on iTunes Spain on December that year. His abilities as a multi-instrumentalist are showcased on that hit album, where he can be heard on the guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. As a trained multi-instrumentalist, Lucky Bamba has performed at prestigious events backed by big name sponsors, including Jazz en Ville, a French music festival sponsored by major companies such as BMW, Mini, Air France, France Bleu, Paris Premiere, Ouest France, Casino de Vannes and Espace Culturel.

Q: How would you describe your new single, and what was the songwriting process like?

A: Musically speaking, I would describe my new single “Let You Go” as a combination of a pop song, mainly regarding its structure and catchy chorus melody, with jazzy/bluesy guitar licks and an overall soul essence. I always tend to start my songwriting process with my guitar. In this case I was just playing around until I stumbled upon an interesting chord progression. Then this catchy melody came into my head and by adding the looping lyrics “but my heart won’t let you go,” the chorus of the song was born. That was kind of a kick-start for my inspiration, and the rest just grew easily from there. I completed the chords and structure for the whole song, and finally composed the melody and lyrics.

Q: What inspires your lyrics?

A: I usually tend to write about things that most of the people can relate to. I want to make music that can connect with as many souls as possible, and therefore I try to write about things that kind of happen to everyone. I believe that love and human relationships have a very important role on everyone’s life. It could be related with your couple, a friend, a sibling, your parents, etc., but love and relations are always there. Either as a successful story, or as a failure, no one can deny that these themes are extremely important and rule our emotional worlds. I, therefore, frequently search for my inspiration through these topics that can definitely awaken passions and sensations on everyone.

Q: What instruments do you play, and how did you learn?

A: At the age of six, I started learning how to play piano with a classical teacher. I learned how to read and write music, and started off by playing classical pieces from Bach, Chopin and Mozart. Some years went by, and by the age of 12 my parents bought me my first guitar, a wooden classical guitar. It was like love at first sight. I became completely obsessed with this instrument and since then, it became my favorite, my passion. Some years went by, and I was very tempted to learn the different roles inside a classical band lineup. By the age of 15, I started to play bass and drums. I formed different bands along my adolescence. In some I sang and played the guitar, in others I played the bass, and in others the drums. This was very important for my musical growth, as I gained a sense of entirety, being able of perceiving the music from different perspectives.

Q: How many tunes do you normally write?

A: Well, I don’t have a schedule or a very clear measurement for my songwriting. It really varies from time to time. The number of songs and compositions I make depend entirely on the moment I’m going through, my feelings at that moment, and the free and calm time I have for sitting down and opening my heart and inspiration.

Q: Did performing covers assist you in helping your own artistry evolve? In what way?

A: Definitely, yes. Performing works from other artists is certainly very enriching. You learn from the different approaches other artist take to create, regarding their songwriting, vocal-phrasing, guitar-playing, soloing, etc. If you aspire to become an artistic creator, I think that learning and performing other artist’s pieces is very inspirational training.

Q: What would you like to achieve ideally by this time next year?

A: I just released my debut single entitled “Let You Go,” and I’m planning on releasing more of my original music soon. By this time next year, ideally I expect to have shared my music with as many people as possible.

Q: What’s the source of your ambition?

A: My love for music is the main source for my ambition. I love it because of its definition, because of what it represents. I think that music is the closest thing to magic we have as human beings. Just by the combination of sounds we are able of awakening emotions, make us feel happy or sad, make us cry or jump of excitement. Isn’t that magical? Music is so powerful. Therefore, being a musician and being able of communicating all these emotions is my number one ambition.

Q: What albums have had the greatest impact on you?

A: Definitely the album Continuum by John Mayer had the greatest impact on me. The perfect combination of pop, soft rock, and blues. His extremely soulful and heartfelt guitar playing and songwriting on that album were very inspiring and awakened a lot of motivation on me to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. The album Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses was also an album that marked me. I remember I got that CD when I was 15-years-old. I was just starting to play electric guitar and got totally obsessed with Slash’s guitar playing. I wanted to learn every solo and riff, and I grew a lot as a guitar player listening and playing along to that album.

www.luckybamba.com

Categories
Interviews

Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see twenty two feature films during this year AFI Fest held in Hollywood from November 9th to the 16th. Many were from veteran directors whose work we have appreciated over the years like Hong Sang-soo and Laurent Cantet, who gave us wonderful new features during the festival, but it was director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who we have admired since his 2003 film, Vozvrashchenie (The Return), who provided us with our favorite film of this year’s AFI Fest, Nelyubov (Loveless).

In Loveless, Zvyagintsev follows Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a soon to be divorced couple, whose constant battling has caused severe emotional trauma to their young son Alexey, who in the midst of his parents’ other ongoing dalliances, has gone missing, a fact which is not even noticed by his parents until days later. Loveless then becomes a film that plays with its audience by putting you in the position of the argumentative couple, who seem more concerned with their anger towards one another and seemingly unfulfilling affairs than the welfare of their own child. Throughout Loveless, we see youth as a commodity in contemporary Russia in terms of romantic pursuits, yet children are often seen as an encumbrance by adults for their attainment of more financial and status oriented goals. Another dichotomy that is also depicted in the film is the divide between religion and faith and how that plays out in the decisions of key characters, which became the focal point of my discussion with Andrey Zvyagintsev, along with a comment from Zvyagintsev’s longtime collaborator, producer Alexander Rodnyansky.

Q: In an early scene shot in a cafeteria that is adorned with religious paintings, we see Boris (Aleksey Rozin) speaking to a coworker about his boss, a character whom you never see, who has a requirement that all of his employees must be married. That scene drew my attention to how faith or religion is seen through certain key characters in your film. How does faith play a part in the narrative?

A: Zvyagintsev: So, the boss is not a completely fictional character. He is more of a composite of conservative ideals in Russia, but there is a person who we were thinking of specifically. There is a factory in Russia where the boss, Vasily Boiko, had 6,500 employees under him, and in 2010, he told all of his employees who were spouses to get married in a religious ceremony or else they would be dismissed. In terms of religion, for a true believer, there is a clear distinction like the one between an ostrich and an eagle, a clear difference between good and bad, and that line goes through that person’s heart. And for those who are not true believers like the boss, that line is between them and the world, so they truly believe in their own Pagan ideas, conservative views like the ones displayed by this character. So, in my film this character is quite satirical. Oh, and one more thing, Vasily Boiko has added “the great” to his title so now he is Boiko The Great. (laughter)

A: Rodnyansky: It was really important for us that the comments that we are making are not about faith, but about the religion. We want to make it clear that we are speaking about the church as an institution, and let’s say the intrusion of the church into secular life as an organization, so our film does not make any comment about faith. Of course, we have a lot of true believers, perhaps not as much as we used to have one hundred years ago, but we still do have a lot. When people speak about the church, we can see it is playing a role in what the people perceive as faith. The church is a kind of an administrative department of the contemporary government. That is why we believe that this is an extraordinarily effective tool to implement the so-called conservative values in Russia today. That is why when we speak about the “religious” people, we always have a distinction between the true believers and the ones involved with the institution.

Q: You show youth as a definitive commodity in contemporary Russian culture as seen through the extramarital affairs of Zhenya and Boris. I was impressed in the film by the intense level of the search that the private/non-governmental organization mounts when Alexey goes missing. Is that level of intense search more a function of the value of youth in Russian society, or more due to Boris and Zhenya’s affluent economic status?

A: Zvyagintsev: Because this is a volunteer organization that has existed for seven years called Liza Alert, the people involved work regular jobs and do the searches for missing people for free. This organization looks for all missing people, so it does not have to be a child who is missing. When they receive a request, there is no money that changes hands, so the economic status of Boris and Zheyna does not play a role here. It could of course be the parents of a lost child that the organization has been asked to help, but it could also be a wife looking for her spouse, or children looking for their parents, so age does not matter, financial status does not matter. It is the awakening of citizens and their ability to organize themselves, and they do this only because of their empathy and desire to help in a way that the government cannot.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) speaks to her son Alexey (Matvey Novikov)

Q: Have organizations like Liza Alert become more prevalent recently because of a specific crisis, like the refugee crisis in Syria or the conflict in the Ukraine?

A: Zvyagintsev: No, not specifically the Ukraine or Syria, it is just a need that had to be addressed by citizens in a way that the Russian government was unable to do.

Q: I ask this question as you regularly show dire, almost apocalyptic political situations in Russia via news clips seen on television during your film. This brings me back to my initial thoughts on how religion and faith are exhibited by the characters and how there may be a divide between older Russians who are gravitating towards religion because of the state of their country, and younger people who have become more secular because of the failings of the previous generation. Organized religion as you stated earlier is being used to foster conservative ideals. In general, is the current political situation driving more Russians closer or farther from organized faith, away or towards being “true believers’ as you say?

A:Zvyagintsev: Statistics show that 74% of Russians say that they are believers, but when they asked that 74% if they had read the Bible or the central text of their faith, only 30% admit that they have actually read the text. It is essentially like Paganism in that there is a social sickness, and a lot of people who consider themselves “believers” don’t understand which god they serve. So, questions about growth of numbers really don’t reflect what is going on in society. It is a social sickness of Paganism rather than true belief. This sickness isn’t just unique to Russia, it is going on all over the world. There are a lot of people who look for God, but find a short God. So, the criteria for a person who is a true believer, a true Christian, like I mentioned earlier, is that he has his border between good and evil going through his heart. It is an epic battle between your real self and your fake self, and if the person sees that evil is not within him, like this religious person who considers the line between good and evil to be outside of him, then he is a fake and not a true believer.

Loveless open in New York and Los Angeles on February 16. 2018

www.palacefilms.com.au/loveless

Categories
Interviews

The Fantastic Plastics

The Fantastic Plastics

Synthesized Outsiders Invade U.S. Scene

“Are you ready to get hot and shwetty?” Resembling a cross between Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix and Hikaru Sulu, The Fantastic Plastics’ animated frontman / guitarist, Tyson Plastic, stepped up to the mic and posed the question casually, as if Georgia fans melting in the 90-plus-degree swelter had any choice in the matter. And although the trip from yesterday’s show in Nashville to today’s show in Atlanta had made for a long, late-night excursion, the synth-driven power-pop duo was more than ready to live up to their end of this shwetty bargain. Welcome to the 2017 Vans Warped Tour, show #9.

Tyson Plastic

Shara Miller
Tyson Plastic

Considered by many to have been one of THE “must-see” acts on this past summer’s iconic, cross-country, multi-band outing, The Fantastic Plastics are seemingly taking their current skyrocketing situation in stride. “It’s all snowballing so fast,” Tyson commented to me humbly, during the Plastics’ meet-and-greet following Warped Tour show #12 in West Palm Beach.

Having relocated back to their original Illinois home base just prior to embarking on the Warped Tour, Tyson reflected on the time he and synth siren / fashion designer, Miranda Plastic, spent residing recently in the Big Apple. “We loved living in New York, but it was like being on another planet,” he confessed. “It was sorta like the experience of being outsiders. Culturally, we were definitely outsiders. We’re actually from an alternate reality where the optimistic future dreamt up by futurists in the 1960s actually came true. Cars still have fins where we are from. But they fly and run on good vibrations!”

For the quirky combo, being perceived as “cultural outsiders from another planet” ain’t a bad thing, and it’s certainly nothing new. In fact, it defines the very essence of the Plastics’ unique appeal. However, “quirky” is not an adjective often associated with bands on the hard core Warped Tour. But that’s exactly where Tyson and Miranda found themselves in 2017.

Miranda Plastic

Shara Miller
Miranda Plastic

“We weren’t getting much sleep and it was really, really, hot and sweaty,” Miranda recalled of the summer adventure. “But it didn’t really get to us, because everything else was so great.” As Warped Tour newbies, she admits, “Being like kind of a ‘weird’ band, compared to the typical Warped Tour band, we really didn’t know what to expect and if people were going to accept us. But everyone was unbelievably friendly and got along and became actual friends. It was almost like an addiction, and we really miss it.”

Of the many band friendships established on the tour, Tyson pointed quickly to one particular Canadian connection. “Courage My Love are genuinely the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” he revealed during our post-Warped Tour tour Skype conversation. “Those two girls, Mercedes and Phoenix, are so sweet and so talented,” he continued. “They’re every bit as weird as we are – weird in a good way. And their songs are great.”

As for the Plastics’ musical influences, there are many, but not necessarily the ones fans might expect. “We get pegged with the Devo thing and the new wave thing a lot,” Tyson admitted. “But when I go back and I think about when it (our music) started, I thought it was sorta power-pop with some surf and synth on it,” he added. “We both just want to do something different and be something different,” Miranda confessed. “We have a lot of influences, but we try to make it like our own creative thing.”

While acknowledging shared stylistic DNA with such obvious retro artists as Gary Numan, The B-52’s and Devo, Tyson also points to a few other, rather unlikely suspects. “We have two really big Led Zeppelin influences in our music,” he offered proudly. “In ‘Troublemaker’ there is a bridge part that is a riff I sorta deconstructed from their ‘Heartbreaker’ riff, and I flipped it all around and kinda put it in a funnier key.” He added, “To some degree, Miranda’s Theremin playing is inspired by Jimmy Page.” Tyson also owns up to having borrowed a David Lee Roth sample in the aforementioned, “Troublemaker.” Commenting on his past disdain for Van Halen-style / arena rock, he revealed, “I hated that stuff when I was younger. But now as an adult, I have a total appreciation for 1984.

Straying from any standard-type creative blueprint, the Plastics’ high-energy ear worms are never first demoed and then tested live. According to Tyson, “Our records are created entirely in the studio.” Yet despite laboring endlessly in the control room with the group’s mysterious third member, Dylan Plastic, Tyson and Miranda agree that they’re never satisfied completely with the final product. “There’s always something we want to change,” says Miranda. Tyson concurs. “‘TV Head’ and ‘Thought Patrol’ are the only two songs that we’ve been entirely happy with.”

The early “proto-Plastics” version of the group first developed as a side project between Tyson and Dylan back in 2008, while Miranda served as costume designer. “The live ‘thing’ was never his ‘thing,’ Tyson says of Dylan, adding that his ever-elusive creative partner will always be “an equal member” of the project.

The Fantastic Plastics live in Chicago (2017)

Shara Miller
The Fantastic Plastics live in Chicago (2017)

As for the Fantastic Plastics’ impressive current music catalog, it consists of two irresistible EPs, Outsiders (2014) and Invasion (2016). Sandwiched between the two tasty slices of futuristic-flavored fun is their acclaimed 2015 full-length record, Devolver, as well as a fistful of catchy singles, including their remake of The Flaming Lips’ 1993 radio hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.”

Having just wrapped up a Midwest fall club tour, Tyson announced recently that additional concert dates will be posting soon on the Plastics’ various social media sites. Tyson added that he also expects to be back in the studio with Miranda and Dylan, very soon, with a new record dropping sometime in 2018.

But during a hectic year of near-constant touring, was there anything new that The Fantastic Plastics learned while invading the U.S. scene? Apparently so, Tyson recalled. “A nice fella named the Trash Wizard once told me while on Warped Tour, ‘You can’t undo drugs.'” Lessons learned, indeed!

thefantasticplastics.bandcamp.com www.etsy.com/shop/FantastiquePlastique

Categories
Interviews

Philip Kaufman Revisits The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

Director Philip Kaufman Revisits The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

Director Philip Kaufman (left) Speaks With Film Critic, Stephen Farber

Generoso Fierro
Director Philip Kaufman (left) Speaks With Film Critic, Stephen Farber

Like so many, I was deeply saddened when I heard the news that Sam Shepard passed on July 27th of this year. Shepard possessed such eclectic talents as a both a writer and an actor, but yet, with all of his significant contributions that he provided us with, I must admit that the first aspect of Shepard that I thought of when I heard the news was his dynamic portrayal of famed Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager, in director Philip Kaufman’s exhilarating 1983 film, The Right Stuff. For me, that film was a perfect storm; at the time of its release, I was fourteen years old, the perfect age to see it I feel, and I had been given the Tom Wolfe novel from a family friend who loved all things space a year or so prior, so I was super excited to see the film, and finally, whether I knew it or not, I had been loving Philip Kaufman’s films for years without even knowing that Kaufman had directed them.

Similar to Sam Shepard’s, Kaufman’s output was indeed quite eclectic by the time he had directed The Right Stuff. All you need to do is simply look at Kaufman’s output from 1978 to 1981. The director’s 1978 feature, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is universally celebrated as the finest adaptation of Jack Finney’s classic science fiction novel. The very next year Kaufman smartly adapted The Wanderers, Richard Price’s gritty novel about racially divided street gangs in 1960s Brooklyn, and then in 1981, the homage to the serial films of the 1930s that Kaufman had co-authored with George Lucas years earlier became Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Be assured though, in the years after I saw The Right Stuff, I became quite fascinated with Kaufman and how he was able to effectively vacillate between so many genres as a director.

Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear Philip Kaufman speak in person with former New York Times film critic Stephen Farber about not only Kaufman’s overall career, but also the evening’s film, Kaufman’s seldom screened or discussed 1972 revisionist western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. When we speak of the American revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the conversation naturally turns to films such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but I have always wondered: why had Kaufman’s 1972 brazenly irreverent look at the last robbery perpetrated by the infamous James-Younger gang been so overlooked both critically and financially at the time of its release and since? It is a fact that westerns, in general, had not been as lucrative by 1972 as they were in the early 1960s in the United States, but surely a film starring the recent Oscar winning actor Cliff Robertson (for 1968’s Charly) and Robert Duvall, who was starring in the most popular film of that year, The Godfather, would have piqued audiences’ desires to see those actors in a new film, no matter what the genre? Was it then the critics, who wielded immense power in that period, the culprits for the failure of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid to find an audience?

In May of 1972, Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Jay Cocks of Time magazine had written somewhat mixed, but mostly positive reviews of Kaufman’s western, and Richard Schickel for Life magazine on June 16, 1972 wrote:

“The film has about it a wonderfully fresh air. Scenes that begin conventionally enough twist off into unexpectedly humorous or brutal paths, characters that seem familiar enough at first glance develop odd wrinkles. Even scenery and decor that we’ve all seen too many times is glimpsed in a new light, from new angles.”

These reviews were not by any means overwhelmingly strong endorsements, and there were also some purely negative reviews, but as Stephen Farber, who was an early advocate of the film, would soon find out, “Universal Studios was trying to bury the film” (Film Comment, Jan/Feb 1979).

The following is a transcript of the onstage conversation between Philip Kaufman and Stephen Farber that occurred at the Ahyra Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills on August 18th, 2017.

Q: Stephen Farber: Thank you. I am glad that for our opening tonight of this year’s Western Weekend at the Ahyra Fine Arts, that we can introduce you to a film that is not as well known as some of the others that are being seen this weekend. So, without further adieu, I would like to introduce the writer and director of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Philip Kaufman (applause). So, tell us Philip, I know that you are a bit of a history buff, what got you interested in telling this story, the grittier truth of the history of Cole Younger and Jesse James?

A: Philip Kaufman: So, I don’t know about being a history buff, but I was doing my postgraduate work in history at the University of Chicago, and I just felt history wasn’t connecting with me, and I wasn’t connecting with history because it was something frozen and academic. I had been through different places like Harvard Law School, and I had decided that there was no vitality and no dynamism to what I was studying. There were a lot of a opinions and a lot of memorization of facts, but there was no vitality, so if I became a buff it was because I was reading stuff that wasn’t in the history books — it was in the chronicles often of different outlaws.

As for Jesse James, I had done a couple of very low budget independent films in Chicago that didn’t take off, but you have to remember that, when I started, there were only a few independent directors. There was of course, Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, and a few others when [Benjamin] Manaster and I did a film called, Goldstein (applause). Goldstein went to Cannes and won a Critics’ Prize [Prix de la Nouvelle Critique]. We had also done Frank’s Greatest Adventure, which the distributor later called, Fearless Frank, which we had done with amongst others, Severn Darden and many Second City people, but these films didn’t give me the ability to raise money in Chicago, so we packed up and moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love and then came down to Los Angeles, and I got a job at Universal where I eventually was making a hundred and seventy five dollars a week and entered a young filmmakers program. During that time, I ran into Frank Price, who later would run a couple of studios here, and he and I became friends, and so we started talking about Jesse James and for a while he helped me shape this project.

I wrote the script for this film four years before it was made. By that time, there were all of these Jesse James movies out, and he was sort of this iconic, heroic figure, much like those whom I was reading about in graduate school, but that wasn’t the history that I had found. No, he was something of an egomaniacal, sadistic character, a blinky-eyed bastard in some ways, but fun and interesting in his own way! But as you’ll see in the film, the main guy in the James-Younger gang was in fact Cole Younger. Jesse James, after Younger’s capture, went on to create the legend that many understood. So, when I did the film, people were calling it an alternative history because my friends who were in the movement, the more radical of the bunch, said to me, “Don’t touch fucking Jesse James because he was a hero!” I mean this guy was a racist, but people come to create heroes in strange ways, and I see now that the reason why we are having all of the problems of today’s world is that we created heroes without balance really, comicbook heroes we can say. And I thought, can we approach history and the James-Younger gang by bringing in historical facts while having some of the fun and stupidity of history and some of the pulp qualities of films? By this I mean that the film is called The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and it wasn’t great at all. And as you’ll see in my film, both sides claimed to have written the history of it in one way or another, and both sides had reason to be perhaps ashamed of the history that they had passed down through time.

So, I wanted to do something that was alive and fun, and I guess that maybe my background from Chicago and Second City led me to approach history in that way. Sometimes, it is truer if you can laugh at something. Sometimes Saturday Night Live can get to the truth about a president in a more effective way than the evening newscast for example. So, there are these elements of all of this here as you watch the film, and it was made in the way that I feel that all films should be made, which is that it was made by people who wake up in the morning and who care about the tasks that they are totally involved in and who feel that they are doing the most important thing in the world, no matter how funny or strange. We just wanted to strip away the cloak of Hollywood from the film.

Robert Duvall and The James Gang

Robert Duvall and The James Gang

Q: Had you been a fan of other westerns? I mean this had been an era of the revisionist approach to the western genre with Peckinpah and Altman.

A: Well, this had been shot at the same time as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and for various reasons, its release had been put off, and I could go into why it was put off, but I loved Ride the High Country, which you are also showing this weekend here, and I think that the films of that time and the filmmakers of the late ’60s and early ’70s were all trying to present things the way they might have actually been, with characters who may have actually lived in that time as opposed to the characters in westerns from the 1950s who looked like their hair had just been cut and always had a clean shirt in every scene and who were acting a plot rather than acting and immersing and submerging themselves into the character. You’ll see in this film a young actor who had done a couple of features prior to this one named Robert Duvall, who when I think of his portrayal of Jesse James here, I think that you are seeing one of his greatest performances.

Q: How did you come to cast Duvall? I too feel that he brought a very fresh approach to his character in this genre.

A: I had just met him in interviews. I didn’t know Francis [Ford Coppola] that well, but they had done The Rain People prior to that, but he was Boo Radley and performed in a few others things, and we hit it off. He is the kind of actor that I have the most admiration for. There is a scene, for example, in this film where he and some of the other members of the gang come riding into Northfield on four horses abreast, and they come riding around the corner in a heavy rain. This was Oregon, and we began shooting the movie for various reasons after Thanksgiving when it would be dark by three in the afternoon and raining every day. It was very tough and the whole movie was shot in maybe twenty eight days.

In this scene, I was on the roof with my cameraman, Bruce Surtees, who was a marvelous cameraman (applause), and he was on a box, and I had a headset on next to him, and we hadn’t done any rehearsals, so when the horses came around the corner and I heard, over the remote, Robert Duvall saying these lines, “Here she is Frank, the City of the Plains,” I suddenly, because I had spent years thinking about this, thought that his voice was the voice that I had in my mind when I was writing this. So, I unintentionally grabbed his [Surtees] legs, and I don’t know if the camera shook, but it was one of those great things that a director could have had happen to them. I have had that happen a few times with some great actors that I have worked with, where rather than telling them what to do, I became an audience for them. There have been occasions in my career when I have been so enthralled by what the actors were doing that I forgot to say “cut.” There is some incredible talent of certain actors, and it doesn’t get the play that it should, or even the recognition from critics, so when you see Duvall here people should feel this performance.

Q: Duvall’s co-star, Cliff Robertson, was more in the older tradition, yes?

A: Yes, Cliff was a little more old school. A very good actor, he had just won an Oscar for Charly, and he approached the film differently, more from the Hollywood style, but he really wanted to do the movie, which was great considering he won had just won the Oscar, so kudos to him for being part of this.

Cliff Robertson (left) and Robert Duvall

Cliff Robertson (left) and Robert Duvall

Q: You are a big fan of ensemble in a lot of your films, and you have a lot of fine actors in this film in small parts. Is that important to you to get these small parts filled with the right actors to add texture?

A: When you’re cooking the stew, you want all of the flavors to come through. Too often in American movies, and even American theater, peripheral characters fall off because everything is centered around the star. This is not as much the case in British theater, where every person has a developed character. I remember when we did Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Donald Sutherland was having some small problems with a scene, so we shut the set down, and we were then all sitting down talking about it when Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, and a bunch of the actors started saying, “Donald, we know what we are going to do, so any choice that you make…” You knew they were fully aware of their characters, so they were capable like a great team saying, “Pass the ball to us; we’re not going to respond to this in a stiff way.” The great actors do that. You know I have worked with so many, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Day Lewis, Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman, it is incredible as to how receptive they are. There is a kind of brilliance, a kind of zen truth when they are there in that moment, and you only can hope that the camera is getting all of those things. I hope that Caleb Deschanel, one of the world’s greatest cameramen who is here tonight (applause), understands that they are making the film with you. The actors, the cameramen, they are collaborators, and they are all making the film too.

This weekend, you are showing films by great directors, Sam Peckinpah and so forth, but to me sometimes the greatest films are the ones where the audience is just part of the scene if they can get carried away by a performance, by lighting in the film, and that’s why you move the camera in a certain way, why you edit it a certain way, and this is to not seduce them for commercial reasons, it is to tell a tale, and if the writer and director feel that it is an important tale, then the actors are there to cook it.

Q: Going back to the historical elements of the film, I just wanted people to notice all of the visual details in this movie that bring the past to life here. The little touches and the sets and all of the care that was put into that which brings such a great texture to the movie.

A: Now, people do that level of texture much more these days. It is something that set designers are more conscious of when they make a film today. Back then, it wasn’t so much a priority, the small details. They shot backlots, and there was a certain artificiality that people accepted. That shirt that John Wayne would wear was maybe a color that really didn’t exist back then, but it didn’t matter. Even when we were framing this film, we looked at old photographs, and they were often off center; they were skewed, awkward even, so we tried to create that feeling that we were seeing in the photographs, but some critics came back and wrote that “Kaufman doesn’t even know how to frame a shot.” So, I felt that there was a certain awkwardness to some of the film here that I hoped and felt was historically true.

Q: A number of your films have been set in the past, different periods of history, and so I have always wondered if you have a little bit of a distance from the present and have always had a kind of attraction to other periods of time?

A: The past is something that I can know something about. Too many people are busy predicting the future without understanding the past. Maybe because I started studying history, I just appreciated discovering things that I didn’t know. I hate to sound selfish, but the reason that I don’t make the same film over and over or try to just do a genre film is because, if I have already done something, then I selfishly want to learn something else. As for The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, after we had completed it, I could’ve done more westerns. After Unbearable Lightness of Being or Henry and June, I could’ve just had more sex! (laughter) It is an adventure. When I saw this film the other night, you’ll see as a part of Cliff Robertson’s character, the ethos of, “No matter how many times you get shot down, you have to keep on getting up,” and now fifty years later, I appreciate that, and I sort of think that Cole Younger’s story is sort of mine.

Q: Well, I want to thank Philip (applause)…

A: No wait, I have one more thing to say…So, this film was rushed into release for various reasons, and there is a number of stories I could tell, like we had a temp track of Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” and the studio told us to get “that fucking music out of there,” and then Dave Grusin did a great score for us, but then the film came out, and a number of the critics didn’t like it, and sometimes critics respond to the shabby release of a film, but this was my first Hollywood film. So, I got under the covers, and I told Rose, “That’s it, and maybe I’ll go back to being a mailman or a Fuller Brush man.” I mean, I was a good mailman once, but at that moment, I was under the covers, and the phone rang, and Rose said, “Stephen Farber is on the phone.” I knew that you were writing for the New York Times, and so then, I sort of reached out from under the covers, and it was you, Stephen, and you said, ” I saw your movie, and I loved it,” and well, here we are!

Q: Let me just say that I went to see the movie at Universal at a press screening, and I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t gotten any advanced publicity, but I had heard of the actors, and I thought that it would be interesting, and it was a total discovery for me! I just felt, my God, what are they doing? This is one of the most original, engaging, and funny approaches to the genre, and so yeah, I felt the need to call you and tell you that I thought that because I felt that the film was not getting its due. It is nice to discover a movie that you don’t know anything about; you go in without any expectations, and you’re sort of pleasantly surprised, and that is a great experience to have. This level of surprise is somewhat lost now, of course, because we have so much hype, sometimes false hype, surrounding a release.

A: Thank you Steve, and that is why we need critics. Thank you so much.

Categories
Interviews

Kivanç Sezer

Kivanç Sezer

We saw over fourteen feature films at this year’s SEEFest (the South East European Film Festival) in Los Angeles, but the film that most impressed us was My Father’s Wings (Babamin Kanatlari), the debut feature from Turkish director Kivanç Sezer. Inspired by a workplace accident that claimed the life of a university student in the director’s native Turkey, Sezer’s film draws attention to the issue of poor worker safety that has become a crisis because of unregulated subcontracting practices in the high-profit market of constructing high rise buildings that meet updated earthquake codes emerging after the destruction caused by the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul and the 2011 earthquake in Van, along with the ongoing concern of the impact of expected future earthquakes. We sat down with Kivanç Sezer to discuss his feature in depth, specifically focusing on how his education in bioengineering impacted his creative process, his character development, as well as choices in how he depicted the different cultures that exist in contemporary Istanbul in his film.

• •

Generoso Fierro: After the screening at SEEFest of your debut feature, you stated that your intention for creating it was to draw attention to Turkey’s dubious distinction of leading Europe in worker-related fatalities. We know that some of these issues are due to an increase in construction because of the Turkish earthquakes in 2011 causing a severe homelessness situation. Has this already dire situation been exacerbated by Erdoğan’s decision to prioritize the building of an overpriced presidential palace? Was his action to disregard the crisis further inspiration for your need to create this film?

Kivanç Sezer: The Van earthquake of 2011 actually did not affect the whole country. However, it had a very strong effect on the region and on our character, İbrahim, who is from there, but Istanbul was central to the script construction, and therefore it is the main setting for the film. Now, regarding the story, my main inspiration was a news article that I read in 2010 about a university student who was working on a construction site and was killed there. It deeply affected me, and this started my interest in the subject. After I began researching this incident, I began to realize that worker safety was a large problem that was not being covered by the news, and this situation is symptomatic of a system that does not give working class and poor people proper access to education, so they are forced to work these kind of jobs while attending school. The safety problems in many of these workplaces are well known, but the bosses are just concerned about their profits.

When I started going to worksites to do research, it became apparent that the building industry is the driving force of the Turkish economy, but on the other side, the government does little to control the hazardous situations that many workers face every day. The government is just focused on the wealth that this industry brings in and little else, as there is high demand for the apartments that are being built, a demand that is not only coming from within Turkey, but also from Arab nations as well. Investors pump money into these projects and hire contractors who demand quick results. So, my main concern was to address this hyper-profit driven model and the resulting human stories within this growing but broken industry. As for Erdoğan’s palace, that is something else. It is a high profile example of the issue, but the safety problems going on all over Turkey are more dramatic. I am deeply concerned about these workers’ safety and wanted to make a film centered on them.

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) and Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and their colleagues at the building worksite

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) and Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and their colleagues at the building worksite

Lily Fierro: Based on your film’s subject of building construction and your personal interest in workers’ stories, we would like to get a better understanding of your shift from engineering over into filmmaking. One of the things that I found interesting about your film is the way you put it in the context of fears of future earthquakes. In one scene, we see a couple interested in buying an apartment in this building because they want a space that is more structurally sound. Was part of your interest in human stories partially derived from your own decision to depart from engineering and to become a filmmaker? And, did your understanding of engineering lead you to focus in on this specific situation of construction dangers for the subject of your debut film? I ask this because, when you are a scientist or an engineer, scenarios happen a lot in the field where you create some sort of solution on paper, but you might not completely think of the impact of that solution on the people who have to build it.

Let me add one additional point regarding the earthquake. Before the 2011 earthquake in Van, a very strong earthquake happened very close to Istanbul in 1999, and thousands of people died in the Marmara region. So after this incident, all construction regulations changed and adapted to prepare for an earthquake in Istanbul that the experts predict will occur in upcoming years and will cause thousands of deaths when it arrives. Coming to my education, yes, I do believe that my background in engineering had some influence on me in terms of this project, but my background is in bioengineering, so my work was mostly done in the laboratory. When I was studying, I appreciated the notion of optimization in engineering, and that, I do believe, affected me when I was creating my characters.

In a way, I optimized my characters for the story. The story itself has a context and a backdrop, which in this case is construction, but it also has an internal aspect in it as well as drama, which both come from my heart and not my mind. My engineering background will always influence my mind in some way, but I am trying to find the stories that touch my heart, and then through my heart, I go to screenings to see audiences and hope that it reaches them in the same way. I put this husband and wife in the film because they are like many people who are looking for a place to live and who are afraid of the upcoming Istanbul earthquake, which they are sure will happen, and so they want to buy a new house which will be constructed properly. You see a predominance of the buildings that were constructed before the earthquake that were not built properly and were consequently damaged, and that is why this couple wants a flat in this new building. This couple is important to me as they are buyers, and they are the ones who will be paying for this apartment for ten or twenty years with a huge mortgage, so they are the ones who keep this system intact, and that is why they are going to be the focus of my second film of this trilogy. In the third film in the trilogy, I would like to then focus on the lives of the big bosses who make this building happen with all of the corruption and money that is involved. So, the connection will be from the earthquake to the construction and from the lower, middle, and upper class people involved.

Generoso: Hearing now about your plans to create a trilogy centered around this building, I cannot help but to be reminded of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, which you know adapts the biblical Ten Commandments in a modern context by playing out each one through the lives of the residents within one housing complex. Was this series an inspiration to you at all?

Actually, Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy was my inspiration for these films in terms of overlapping stories in three different films. For instance, you see a character from White in Blue as an extra in the background, and then in White, that character you saw in Blue is now the focus, and that is what I want to do in my trilogy. That is why I show the couple who is looking to buy an apartment in My Father’s Wings, for they will be the subject of the second film, and in the second film you will see a glimpse of the big bosses who will then be at the center of the third film. There will be a lot of interactions between them, all of which I feel connects them, which is important, for in life, we are not usually aware of these connections. You are usually not aware of who built your house, or if someone died while they were building it, and it is that kind of alienation that keeps us going, and I think that cinema can break this kind of alienation and obliviousness that we have.

Generoso: An aspect of your film that we also found interesting was the depiction of faith between the character of Master İbrahim and Yusuf. İbrahim is an older family man, who is seen praying at the mosque, whereas Yusuf uses colloquialisms attached to faith, almost with a level of disdain, and seems to be more of a secular being. Can you discuss your intentions with the faith depiction within these two men? Is this simply a comment on these two different generations?

Faith is an important element in the film, and for İbrahim, his is a pure religious faith. He goes to the mosque to pray, but he also gambles as part of his character. The bad things that he has done in the past are also part of him, but then he decides to quit doing bad things, but his dilemma still remains: his faith is not enough to make his life better, which drives him to the edge where he must confront his reality of needing money. This leads İbrahim to the decision to commit suicide so that he can receive compensation money from the company that hired him which he can leave to his family, and this, of course, is a sin. Yusuf on the other hand, has little religious faith and only believes in himself and his future, a future that he believes will bring him success as he will rise through the ranks and no longer be a worker, but perhaps a contractor himself with his own company someday.

In a way, their perspectives on life connect these two characters, because, to me, they are the different sides of the same coin. They both are looking in different directions, but at the same goal and with the same level of self-sacrifice. I should also say that without the character of Yusuf, the film would be too grim, giving little hope to the audience to sustain them throughout. Yusuf is also important in adding a level of humor and a look into the younger generation in Turkey that hopes for a positive future. One critic remarked that Yusuf is actually the central character of the film, and not İbrahim, which I am fine with as I am aware that they are very close to one another, so to designate one or the other as a supporting actor was not that important. Establishing the unity between this uncle and nephew was more important to me.

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) reflecting after gambling away his money.

İbrahim (Menderes Samancilar) reflecting after gambling away his money.

Lily: In terms of their unity, İbrahim and Yusuf are different when it comes to faith, but can you speak of the halay (dance traditions) that connect them and many of the characters to the region they are from?

İbrahim and Yusuf are Kurdish, and the Kurdish people express a good amount of their feelings through the halay. In demonstration, people dance the halay; at a wedding, of course, they dance the halay, and even while they mourn, they dance the halay. It is very common, and during my preparation for the film, I watched a lot of videos of workers dancing at construction sites. To me, it is a sign of life because in the construction site — where it is so cold, where it is so grey — they need something to carry on, and for these characters, dancing the halay is the will for life.

Generoso: Understanding the importance of dance in the Kurdish culture increases the impact of the scene when Yusuf, after speaking to his friend about wanting to become a boss, breaks up the dance that the Kurdish workers are teaching the Uzbeks at the construction site. It says a great deal about what sacrifices he is willing to make in order to succeed.

Lily: And, to that point, I love that you show the halay and its role in multiple moments throughout the film. One of my favorite scenes in My Father’s Wings is when you see Yusuf and his girlfriend dancing with a group of young people in the town square. Yusuf’s girlfriend, Nihal, is wearing a hijab, but you also see a mix of women who aren’t wearing a hijab and are dressed more in a western style.

And that is what we have in Turkey. I think that many people who have never been there think that we all are still wearing fez hats like we did during the Ottoman Empire and that everyone wears a burqa or a hijab that covers everything but the eyes. In contemporary Turkey, the hijab is a common source of debate because, for many years, the secular people asserted that in schools and in public places the hijab should not be allowed. It has even sometimes been so much of an issue that students who wear hijabs have left the university. After Erdoğan came to power, the opposite began to occur, and now you see more women wearing hijabs in public. I have no problem with this either way, but this issue has two sides…The secular people sometime criticize me for depicting a woman wearing a hijab, and then the conservatives say that they like how I use the character because I show her fairly in that I don’t insult her or judge her in any way. The critics in Turkey liked the way that I framed the character of Nihal (Kubra Kip). It was her first film, and she does not wear a hijab in her personal life, but a lot of people thought that she wore it naturally. One conservative even joked and told her that she looked so natural in it that she should consider wearing it all of the time [laughs]. She actually won three awards at three big festivals in Turkey for her performance.

Generoso: I am glad to hear that as she is wonderful with her character. One aspect of Nihal that I find interesting as well is that as she is a more conservative person, I would imagine that it would be difficult for her to date someone like Yusuf because of the more secular way that he chooses to live his life, but she never tries to proselytize him in any way. I think that for western audiences it is important to see a character like Nihal who is so open minded.

It indeed was very important for me as well, and even though her character is only onscreen for fourteen minutes, she adds so much to the film. She is so open about how she feels that she, in turn, opens up Yusuf’s character.

Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and Nihal (Kubra Kip)

Yusuf (Musab Ekici) and Nihal (Kubra Kip)

Lily: Lastly, beyond the building, we get some glimpses of the surrounding architecture, but for most of the film, the setting is extremely sparse. Is the focus on the building of this faceless development indicative of a movement to create new buildings with complete disregard for any history of the city of Istanbul or Turkey overall?

I should say that the reason that I selected this particular place to shoot the film is because, when most international audiences see Istanbul, you usually see it depicted with a lot of older architecture, and we of course do have that, but in reality most of the population lives in the suburbs, and most of the buildings there are really designed in an inhuman way. I mean, how can people live normally on the fourteenth floor of a building, not being able to see any trees or having to look down to see people the size of ants? There are hundreds of blocks near Istanbul with buildings like the ones I show in my film. These buildings are also so very expensive, and given that so many people live so far from the city center, there are traffic jams everyday just to get to work. I wanted to show this side of Istanbul that you rarely see, and even though this district has its own culture, overall, it was not my goal to make a tourism video to sell Istanbul to the audience.

The skyline of the surrounding buildings in My Father's Wings

The skyline of the surrounding buildings in My Father’s Wings

• •

Thank you Kivanç for your time and for your film.

My Father’s Wings is available On Demand through Films2C now until June 3rd, 2017.

Categories
Interviews

Keith Morris

Keith Morris

Keith Morris is the legendary founder of Black Flag and Circle Jerks. He’s currently leading Off!, still spreading the punk rock spirit around the world and he recently released his memoirs, My Damage to great acclaim. Ink 19 asked him a few questions about the world today. He does not disappoint.

Q: You got your start in the late ’70s, early ’80s with Black Flag and Circle Jerks, during the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Now, in 2017 we have Trump. Does it feel somewhat like you’re living this all again?

A: WORSE! “0” is not even close to or even can be compared to Reagan as at least Reagan had some political education and experience having been governor of California. The former governor it is said entered the presidency at the beginnings of his brain being riddled with Alzheimer’s disease so he has a slight excuse for being the dip shit that he was. What’s “0”‘s excuse? This isn’t about me having lived through this before it’s about all of us living in what’s going on right now! We as a country are fighting with each other, not taking the time to listen to the other side, a lot of us set in our ways and not willing to move forward, having been lied to so many times that we believe their lies, being pushed aside by the ultra mega corporations and having our say taken away from us. The people who’re supposed to speak for us have a vocabulary that includes “What’s in this for me?” or “Get out of my way because I’m more important than you!”. I can write on for another hour about this but I won’t!

Q: On the 1982 Circle Jerks album Wild In The Streets you wrote songs such as “Question Authority” and “Moral Majority”. Do you ever consider yourself a political songwriter? Or put another way, is punk music protest music at heart?

A: I do consider myself a political, social commentary and satirist just to lighten things up! I’ve always been serious but there comes a time and a place where you’ve gotta’ throw your hands in the air and say at the top of your lungs……..FUCK IT! Punk rock lyrics should be all things you want to say including freedom. We play rock and roll music as loud and furious as possible. Rock and roll at it’s base is “I don’t wanna’ be like you!”, “I won’t take orders from you!”, “Don’t you tell me what to do!” and this equates to us versus them or youth versus authority. This has gone on since that kid living inna’ cave started hitting stones together!

Q: In your travels with Off! what sort of mood do you pick up on among your fans about the election and our current state of affairs?

A: Well it’s a mix of people who don’t care that show up to get their faces erased to open minded souls who’re aware of what’s going on to those peeps that have to have a voluminous enlightening experience. As for the mood is hopefully energetic, electric and exciting and everyone getting to let off some steam!

One of my “Whoa! What did he just accuse me of?” scenarios was being called Nigger in a room with about 250 people while I was trying to explain the lyrics to “Poison City”. Yes this is an anti government, fuck politicians song pointing the finger at the second bush administration for what they did on 9/11 and how they exploited that horrible event. We were lied to and why didn’t one of those jets crash into wherever Cheney or Rumsfeld resided?

Q: As a lifetime California resident, do you have any thoughts about Calexit?

A: Calexit for me taps into a few things such as why the state of California with our large population, agriculture, porno industry, computer technology, military machinery, the three branches of the showbiz industry being TV, movies and music doesn’t have more to say in the choosing of who is going to run this country. We get fucked over by places that have a few thousand people and I know we’re trying to be fair but something’s wrong with that shit. We possess the 6th largest economy of the world with 5 industrious ports in the top 100 in the US and I’d think we should have a larger role in the political situation. What do I think of Calexit itself……….I’m a fence sitter. One day I’m for splitting from the USA and starting something else and then the next day I’m thinking what would we do if Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada decided to invade us? I ultimately fall back on we’re part of the United States and we need to be more united to upend the evil in our nation’s capitol………….

Q: What concerns you the most living in Trump’s America?

A: First off IT’S NOT Trump’s AMERICA! I’m most concerned with the lying and denying and the anarchists against the fascists against the everyday, common American. No more tax breaks! No more tax shelters! No more offshore banking and money in politics! No more raking the people who just want to earn a living, enjoy life, hang out with their families and friends and own a stereo, car and even a house over the fuckin’ coals! There’s way too much evil shit happening and I believe that we all have to be good humans because our world starts with us as individuals!