Matt Shea typically eats popcorn and lobs rotten fruits at the screen in the back row of 20/20 Filmsight,
If you read this site regularly, you’re probably a) familiar with Faye Reagan, before or after the fact, and b) a little hardcore about your music. Recent years haven’t been kind to the psyche of the dedicated music fan, the post-millennial culture of fear being readily co-opted by the record industry. CD sales are down. The internet’s a bitch. We’re all doomed.
But what do the bands themselves think of the state of play in the music business? It’s a question that captured the imaginations of filmmaker Scott Sloan and former Paste Magazine editor Steve LaBate, two lifelong friends who decided to pool their passion and hit the highways for 40 straight nights of gigs, grog, groupies and greasy dinners.
Sloan would film every epic show, dingy dive bar and meltdown moment for 40 Nights of Rock & Roll, a feature length documentary looking at the current state of rock & roll in America, while LaBate would pen copious notes for the accompanying 40 Nights of Rock & Roll book. It would be documentary at its dirtiest, rock writing at its most verisimilar.
Sloan turned out to be a great interview subject – amiable and candid. An article based on this transcript can be found over at 20/20 Filmsight, but the full deal is below.
Have you decompressed since getting back from your 40 nights on the road?
Yeah. I think it’s been about ten days since I got home and I got a bit of wanderlust today – I wanted to drive for some reason – but the first week I was back I refused to drive, so to go to the Rockies game downtown I’d walk like seven miles, because I just don’t want to drive anymore.
I heard about Black Betty [Sloan’s Jeep Cherokee]. Was it a little like the Blues Brothers, the car falling apart as soon as you jumped out?
She smells really bad. It smells like wet meat in there. I’d say she held together pretty good actually. I was out for a little while today and a lot of people were – not betting against her – but were saying that there was no way she could make it. It felt good to prove them wrong.
You proved the knockers, and the knockers of American engineering, wrong…
Exactly. That’s the one American car you can actually put a boatload of miles on.
40 Nights of Rock & Roll. Where did the original concept come from?
Steve and I were both at a time in our life where he’d just gotten laid off from his job and I’d just gotten let go from my job a couple of months earlier, and I had this whole plan that I came up with last summer where I would somehow end up on unemployment, sell the house I was living in and use the profit to purchase some equipment and do a film – something creative, but something fun. Take a chance – I hadn’t done that before. I’d been working in a cubicle for 13 years and it was like, ‘Do it now or never.’ I don’t have a wife or kids. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but I broke out of the cell, I guess. Or something.
You and Steve are old friends, right?
We’ve known each other for about 15 years, I think.
How did you guys originally meet?
He actually went to high school with my little brother. They’re like three years younger and I’d come home from college and they’d be downstairs in the basement trying to drink beers they stole from the gas station. I had to teach them how to drink properly.
A very rock & roll way to get to know each other…
Yeah, I think he actually threw up the first day I met him.
As you’re entering post-production, do you think you’re now pulling together the same film you started out with?
Well, originally I was thinking about almost doing it avant-garde and being very disciplined with the structure of it: 40 bands, do three minutes per band, a 120 minute film, and that’s it, just work within those rules. And then I wasn’t even going to show Steve and myself, but then I realised there’s no point in doing something in forty consecutive nights where you’re going to be in pain a lot of the time and that lends it urgency, so you’ve gotta see the other side of that. We didn’t shoot a lot of ourselves, but we got a bunch of flip footage and some other stuff and I realised our story of being on the road is really the connective tissue. I think just from the documentation part of interviewing the bands and doing the songs, it pretty much came out as I expected it. I knew we’d see a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different kinds of venues. The interpersonal thing between me and Steve – I thought we’d get along a lot better than we did, but anytime you’re driving around 400 miles a day with someone’s face so close to you that you could link ‘em – you see them before you go to bed, you see them in the morning, and we weren’t having sex so there’s no redeeming factors there, it’s just, ‘Fuck, you again?! Shit man. Fuck!’ So that part all turned out a little differently, but I’m happy with what we got and I would say, even if we never make a dime off of it, I’d call it a success.
What do you think is the state of rock & roll in America today?
It’s way better than I thought it was, and I was quite optimistic heading into it, for some reason. We saw a lot of medium sized bands and a couple that would be described as big bands, but what was really interesting was the towns where we saw local bands – and some of the more renowned acts that are in their city – and just the passion they have for it. They have good fans, a lot of really awesome cool small clubs. It made me fall back in love with live music. I’m 33 and I don’t go to a ton of concerts, but I just went to 40 odd and I want to go back – I think I’ve been to two since I got back, so it’s in the blood.
You hear a lot about falling CD sales and that sort of thing, but how do you and Steve perceive the internet’s effect on the ultimate state of rock & roll?
The biggest thing is that it’s changed. It’s changed the game and now, with Garage Band and MySpace – you can put all your music onto iTunes and it’s just up to you to promote it. None of the bands have a problem with it; they think it’s a good thing. The only real negative that they see – and this came up from a few of them – is that it kinda dilutes the talent pool. Whereas before if you had a CD pressed or a vinyl pressed, you had to be pretty fucking amazing, but now you can record anything. Of course you could have four-tracks before but you couldn’t get it in front of people – put it on MySpace, put it on iTunes. It’s good but it’s just different, and the thing is that now versus the 90s and 80s for that matter, we had bands that were not lip-synched essentially and just had some flashy lights and stuff, and that was their show. I think with the internet now, you have to deliver the goods live because that’s where you’re going to make the bulk of your money. You’re just using the internet and the electronic distribution as the means to get your brand to the people that will come to your show.
There’s seems to be that switch there: live shows used to support the releases, whereas the releases now support the live show…
Yeah, and I think those big record companies – they were taking too much money from the artists before and they were just as doomed as the Wall Street bankers.
What’s your musical backstory Scott? Have you approached this purely from the position of a music fan?
I’ve played in bands, definitely. I still jam with people. I’ve got a band called The Black Unicorns. I used to play in metal bands in highschool and stuff and my brother plays drums also, so we started taking lessons at the same time and we’d show each other what we were learning. So, I can play the drums quite well and if you can play the guitar and you can probably play the bass. The one thing I can’t do half decently is sing, but people say that I have a good singing voice, although its probably more on the funny side of singing talent, rather than musical talent.
A Dave Mustaine singing voice…
It’s even worse than that (laughs). I do sound sick though (laughs).
You spoke to a lot of different bands. How did you decide who to interview?
We made a wish list of bands and we just looked to see who was on tour, and there was actually a lot more planning and logistics for this. Of course, there was always going to be a lot travelling involved, but it really was not easy, so we had a wish list – we got probably 15-20 per cent of wish list, which is pretty good for just knowing whether somebody was on tour or not. The rest of it was using Steve’s extensive music writing background for contacts. So it was who we wanted, and then there was who’s actually on tour, and there was where do we know people, and there was also a few days that ended up being pretty interesting where we didn’t know what the fuck we were going to do (laughs), so we just rolled in. One of the days we were in Texarkana, and I thought we were going to die but we ended up at this cancer benefit with a country band playing at some old honky-tonk joint with sawdust on the floors. Everybody in the bar is smoking, they’ve got like Texas barbecue out there. I walked in there and was like, ‘Dude, let’s just start drinking beer.’ We sat down and started drinking beers and were just respectful, but after being there for a few hours and talking to everybody and they had an auction and stuff, and by the time we left we were hugging everybody. It was pretty awesome.
Was it always your intention to talk to bands at all different levels of the music industry?
Absolutely. That was very important to us, because you get to a certain level and you’re getting ushered in and then the person comes to meet you and then they leave, and it’s not as personal as going to some concrete slab, crappy rock club that holds 200 people and slamming cans of beers with the band in a crappy little green room. That’s cool. And the other thing that’s really cool also is that onstage, when you’re in the audience and watching the show, of course you want to go see something at like the House of Blues where they have an awesome PA and great lights and an acoustically well-designed room, but for us, for rock & roll, to see what the state is you’ve got to look at garage bands and all those things.
Interviewing Paul Westerberg at Target Field – was that always the plan or did it come about at the last minute?
That was actually a lot of work and we’re pretty proud of that. Steve, for the magazine, did a feature on baseball and rock n roll – he did that few years ago – so he knew the director of music for the Twins Stadium, and he also interviewed Paul Westerberg for Paste about five or six years ago, so he had Westerberg’s agent’s information. Westerberg hadn’t really played for anyone since 2006 when he stuck that screwdriver through his hand – do you know Westerberg? There are people who are fuckin’ crazy about the dude.
So, we were thinking about how to get Westerberg and then Steve remembered, ‘Oh, he’s a massive Twins fan. Let’s set this up so we’re in town in Minneapolis while the Twins are on the road and have Paul Westerberg play his guitar acoustically in an empty stadium.’ Steve pitched that idea to Westerberg’s agent and it went back and forth for like a month, just trying to get an answer, yes or no. We left that night open just in case – we had a couple of back-up bands. Finally, the day before we’re due to get it down, Westerberg’s agent calls and is like, ‘You know, Paul never does anything, but every once in a while something that’s just the right kind of weird comes up.’ And I love the guy forever after that – if something weird comes up he’ll do it – that’s my kind of person. And he was totally gracious and a very cool and funny man.
Who were some of the other highlights?
People get mad when I tell them this, but singling out one thing or one band is next to impossible. There are nights when the band was great but the security were dicks, or where the band wasn’t awesome but the bartender thought we were hilarious and gave us tons of free alcohol. I could definitely give you a highlight of every day and a lowlight of every day.
Pushing through the filming of the film in 40 nights – was that a purposeful move to have your own chaotic band-style road trip?
Yes, and that got us so much more credibility with the bands. They were like, ‘How long have you guys been out for?’ and we were like, ‘Oh, we haven’t had a night off in 26 days,’ and they’d be like, ‘What?! You’re crazy, man!’ They appreciated that, because usually when they get someone in for a documentary they role in an RV, and they’ve got people carrying stuff for them and they’re all taking themselves seriously, and we’re just laughing and talking with these bands like they are our friends, which I think they really are in terms of being kindred spirits. I forget which band it was but they were like, ‘Dude, you guys really are a rock band.’ We kinda thought it but it was nice to hear it from someone else!
What was the hardest part of pulling the shoot together? Did you ever think the whole thing was going to fall apart?
Yeah, I almost quit at one stage. It’s kind of a hard one to quit, but there are times when your physical health was a concern and there are other times when your mental health was your concern. There are times when you wondered, ‘Is Steve going to stab me? Or just punch me when I’m driving?’ And sometimes we’d push each other’s buttons. Being in that state for that long, working hard and partying and just having to be a different place every night, you go kinda crazy, I think.
How’s postproduction going?
We’re working on a book part right now. I haven’t actually touched the footage yet. I’ll probably start logging it in the next few days, but I haven’t decided what platform I’m going to edit it on yet and I need to find a good sound person, but for me to just jump right into it I think I’d be too biased and I really believe that with something as personal as this you need time to distance yourself from the material. And not by any problem on my part – I just feel like I can approach it more objectively and as a potential viewer rather than as a participant before I get into it.
Like writing drunk, editing sober?
Exactly! That’s excellent advice.
What’s the general timeframe to get everything finished?
I want to do a simultaneous release of both the book and the film, just because if you’re going to go for it then fucking go for it, I guess. Also, though, if one’s a failure and the other’s successful – if you split’ em up it’s not good. Books have a long cycle time, so I’m thinking like March for some kind of release, but I’m going to get rough copies out to some people and put it on some sort of streaming thing – just for the people who have been following us so they can see where it’s at. Something like that should probably be ready in September or October.
You can keep track of Sloan and LaBate’s progress at 40 Nights of Rock & Roll