Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview: Brendan Toller [I Need That Record! @ the IFFBoston]

Brendan Toller's first film, I Need That Record! is a heartfelt and often humorous documentary that follows the tumultuous relationship the music industry has had with the independent record store over the years. The documentary will make its east coast premier at the Independent Film Festival of Boston at 7pm on Saturday, April 25th at the historic Somerville Theater (buy a ticket here).

RFC: Can you give a little background on yourself and how this film came about? Some of the film's best moments follow the closing and after-life of your hometown record store. Was this the event that triggered you wanting to make a film about, as the title goes, the death and possible survival of record stores?

BT: I'm from Portland, CT a small town that like most of them-
has absolutely nothing to do. A few minutes away in Middletown, CT
there were a few record stores Record Express being the flagship one
that I grew up with. At least half of my collection comes from there.
Great people and a lot of great discovery- Clash London Calling, Neil
Young Tonight's the Night, Uncle Tupelo, Pixies, the Damned... They were a
chain of about 10 or so in new England and around 2003 Record Express
in Middletown was the last one hanging on. In the summer of 2006 it
closed, and while it didn't come as a shock to me I was heartbroken.
It's a tanning salon now. I can't even look on that side of the street
really. It's too painful. There's really a huge void in CT for a good
record store in that part of the state. Upon Record Express closing I
decided to pick up a camera and start making a movie about what in the
hell had happened in the past 10 years to have this happen. It's
something that I felt was always misrepresented in the press. They
were all quick to blame downloading and I knew that was a bullshit

How long did it take you to complete the film? Was there an extensive research phase in compiling the statistics after getting all the footage?

The idea hatched in 2006. The first person who agreed to do an
interview was Ian MacKaye. I had asked him after an Evens show. I
could barely speak I was so nervous, and looking at his reaction he
seemed nervous! But months later we set something up and there I was
at the Dischord house. Then in summer of 2007 I went cross country
with my two friends Jeff and Andrew to shoot interviews and record
store footage. Its amazing what different character and feel each
record store has based on taste and regionality. Then there was the 3
month period of research. I had been doing it loosely since the summer
of 2007 but I really hunkered down and read every book and article I
could concerning the changes of the music industry and the plight of
record stores. I mean everyday from 9am to 2am- reading. Then I
transcribed all 40 hours of interviews. I'm surprised my wrist didn't
fall off. I put the research and interviews together on paper. It's a
funny process- some things sound great on paper and then when you're
in the voice over booth actually saying it you think- 'what the hell
was I thinking!' Same with the interviews on paper it may look great
and when you watch it you think no way.

Probably the most common question you get asked is how you were able to get a hold of all the interview subjects in the film. Did you encounter any problems and were there any interviews you were unable to score?

The best advice I got in doing a project like this was- if you have an
important issue you'll be surprised who you might get to participate.
I want to make it clear that I have really no connections. I just made
a list of who I'd like to see in the film and wrote them via myspace,
their websites, and sometimes through their publicists. I'm still
amazed at how many people on the list are in the film. Sure I would've
liked to get Iggy Pop who used to work in a record store and I'm told
met the Asheton bros there, and I was disappointed Robert Pollard
didn't want to contribute (although he loved the film which is awesome
to hear from one of my heroes)- but in the end it all worked out. Some
interviews were just luck. Mike Watt was in town for 6 hours to do a
poetry reading and then was flying out to Japan or something. I got
him for a full hour! And of course there were problems like my car
breaking down and just barely making it to MIT to interview Noam
Chomsky... But overall it was an incredible experience.

In addition to writing and directing you also did the editing. You definitely managed to give the film a comfortable flow and I'm wondering how much footage did you end up shooting and have to deal with at the end? In the future, are you planning on keeping it the same DIY approach or was this due to your budget?

A lot of people will tell you that to do the writing, editing, and
directing is complete insanity and it is. I certainly would like more
help on the next project I do but I enjoyed involving myself with
every aspect. In the end I had something like 80 hours of footage.
This was my thesis project at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. When I
was in the the thesis concentrator's class I introduced myself and the
film telling everyone that I had 80 hours of footage down to 20 and
everyone burst out laughing. People had doubts, I had some doubts but
I think I have a great film that just needs to find a damn distributor
to get into stores. In the future I'd like to keep the same DIY
approach. I'd love some money for future projects. "I Need That
Record!" was probably made for under $5,000. I certainly don't need
the millions that Hollywood is dishing out for terrible shlock. It
amazes me the amount of waste.

The biggest pitfall that documentaries like this can fall into is wearing down the viewer with a long string of talking heads -- Robert Greenwald's films often get bogged down by this -- and you do a good job in keeping away from that style. I've read that Michael Moore is an influence and there's definitely a lot of humor in I Need That Record! (and the great footage of George Bush using an iPod that you use is very reminiscent of Moore's work) but are there any other films or filmmakers that you look to for inspiration as far as style or aesthetic?

Julien Temple is a filmmaker that I really look up to. His use of
archival footage, interview approach, and his track record with music
docs is simply astounding (check out "Filth and the Fury" and "Joe
Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten"). I think he's one of the most
underrated filmmakers working today. I can only hope to make a film as
beautiful as one of Jem Cohen's someday. He has an incredible eye and
great sense for structure. I love John Waters DIY approach- a band of
Baltimore weirdos set to make films of their own in the 70s when it
was near impossible to make a feature film of your own. I also love
the amount of risk Werner Herzog takes with each film he does. He's
always trying something new which can't be said of most directors or
people his age. I asked him a question when he was at Amherst College
a few years ago- "How do you form such intense relationships with your
subjects?" He took it as "Why are you so intense?" In his deep german

How did the cut-out animation come about? Is there any story behind the recurring hungry dinosaur?

My friend Matt Newman, animator extraordinaire, and drummer of the
rock band the Bunnies did all the cutout animations. It was a fun and
funny process. I would go and ask him to create something loosely
based on what was being said in the voice over. He has a great sense
of humor and a great collagic eye for images. We had talked about the
dinosaur as a symbol for a monstrous dying breed. It represents the
old school of thought in the music industry, the major labels,
corporate culture- destroying everything in its path...

There's certainly no lack of interesting, opinionated folk hanging out at record stores, and that applies to both sides of the counter, and you were able to catch some good moments with these guys. I imagine you were probably able to get some good tips from Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore and the others but did you have a list already in mind of stores you wanted to visit? Was it an extended road trip going to these locations?

We planned a 3 week roadtrip out based on stores we found out about
online- a lot of indie coalition stores, and tips from friends. While
on the road we were tipped off on some great stores from owners,
shoppers, and people we stayed with. The one mistake we all made was
not saving up enough money for all the records we flipped through! I
don't want to name any favorites because they were pretty much all
great except for a few with $40 Beach Boys records (eye roll). I'd
like to put out a comprehensive list of all the existing record
stores, at least in the U.S., to come with the DVD of "I Need That

The majority of I Need That Record! deals with the downfall record stores have experienced, but there is an overall sense of hopefulness at the end of the film that hints at the possible survival. With the second annual Record Store Day coming up on the 18th, reports of sales of vinyl up 89% from 2007 to 2008 and stores like Amoeba still going strong -- there certainly is hope to be had. But was there anything specific that you got from this experience that gave you a sense that a turnaround is ahead for independent record stores? What do you think is in store for the future of the music industry?

I think there is still a huge need for physical locations where
music/arts minds can come together. Not to sound cliche but there are
more people making music, art, and films than ever before. I think
every community could and should have a space that nurtures those
endeavors. If indie record stores want to survive they need to build
their business model around the idea of supporting a community. This
is something the chains will never get. Do in-stores, have contests,
listening parties- make it interesting. Maybe start a record store
cafe, a record stores laundromat- why in the hell has no one come up
with a record bar?! Garage bands, artists, writers etc. are in every
town and they need a place to show their stuff and get started. People
want to go places, see people, hang out- computers haven't chained us
to our chairs just yet. As for the music industry- its always been a
battle between the majors and the indies. Indie labels like Chess,
Stax, SST, Matador, In the Red dictate the tastes of tomorrow because
people are more concerned about music than money. Until the indies can
establish the network, access, advertising, and distribution that the
majors have we're still going to have money grubbing suits with
cave-man-like thinking. A lot of the old ways have eroded in the past
10 years. People sell albums totally differently now. Nothing goes
platinum. The majors have been slow to get all this stuff- the
lumbering dinosaur while the indies are quick and nimble (maybe a
lizard?)... It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Lastly, my colleague Padraic is a big Drive By Truckers fan and he was a little sad that there was only a small, but brilliant, moment with Patterson Hood. I'm wondering if it was a brief interview, because it looks like you might have caught him on tour, or if there's a bevy of gold from Patterson and the others on the cutting room floor?

We had plenty of time- my sister and I went out to dinner with
Patterson- he's one of the nicest guys you'll meet. Unfortunately I
interviewed him a month before I was scheduled to have a rough cut. He
had a lot of great things to say but they were already being said by
other people in different ways. There were a lot of tough decisions
made- shooting the puppy as they say. Each interview was about an
hour so I have an incredible amount of awesome stories, insights, etc.
that will end up in the extras or a second disc to come with the
release which will hopefully be this Fall. Who doesn't want to see
Danny Fields talking about how he broke up the Beatles, Glenn Branca
pontificating on Madonna and Britney Spears, or advice from Watt?

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