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For some reason, everybody wants to make a movie about Wilco. The Chicago based band has been the subject of, or at played a significant role in, two full-length documentaries already. And during most of that screen time, the band is grumpy. Remember the scene in The Man In The Sand where singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy insists that Mermaid Avenue, Wilco’s collaborative album with Billy Bragg, be re-christened Hard Feelings? Remember watching him roll his eyes while former guitarist Jay Bennett dithered with the mixing board in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart?
But Trixie DVD, the film production company founded by Brendan Canty (formerly of Fugazi) and Christoph Green, has had the good luck to catch the band in a better mood and, as a result, its contributions to the Wilco-film genre—including the Jeff Tweedy solo-tour DVD Sunken Treasure—have been among the finest.
This Saturday Ashes of American Flags, Trixie DVD’s recently completed Wilco concert film, will have its DC premiere as part of the DC International Film Festival. Canty and Green were kind enough to speak with Washington City Paper about making the film, the reasons that they love Wilco, and why the band is less grumpy these days.
Interview after the jump:
Washington City Paper: So how did you wind up working with Wilco in the first place?
Brendan Canty: Well, it’s all out of love. Basically we were doing Burn to Shine series and we had made this one film together here [in DC]. It had Bob Mould, Evens, these other bands. My friend Bob Weston, from Shellac, said, “You should come do one in Chicago.” So we booked the whole day and I thought, “I would just love to get Wilco involved,” not only because they’re a big band and that helps everybody, but because they were putting out records like A Ghost is Born.
I had been listening to them for a couple of records, but Ghost really hit me. They were exploring more noise. That’s the interesting thing about the band. They’re a profoundly, like, traditional band, they can tap into old Americana. But that they were also adding this other layer on top of it, this noisy experimental avant stuff that made it really interesting to me.
When we finished that edit [of Burn to Shine: Chicago] I sent them a cut of it and they really liked it. Then we did Jeff Tweedy’s solo acoustic tour DVD, Sunken Treasure, and all the promo films for their last record. This is the first time they gave us the budget to go out and have 9 or 10 people on the road with us for 10 days. It was just a matter of building trust over a period of a few years.
But it all stems from the fact that we were intrigued by the records Jeff started to make. And when Nels Cline joined, that was perfect, just the greatest choice. He used to open for Fugazi in LA, when he was in The Geraldine Fibbers. Now he has this huge new playground of more traditional songs, but he’s more bracketed time, forcing him to be super disciplined.
The players in the band—Glen Kotche, Nells Cline, and Mike and Pat—that’s where this all comes form. That crew is really, to me, the best band n rock and roll right now. If you watch them as musicians…I’m just blown away by how much space they give each other. They really take the time to write songs, to write a setlist, and to play with some degree of purpose, some sense of arc. Anyway, that’s where all this comes from. Now you’ve got me gushing at how much I love their band.
WCP: Wilco had attempted to do a concert film before with filmmaker Sam Jones [director of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart], but the band chose not to release it. Why didn’t it work out? What did you guys decide to do differently?
Canty: You know why that was, it was because Sam was shooting on 35 mm. That requires a lot of lighting. It has to be a lot more staged and the lights get kind of bright. That can be disconcerting people on stage. When Fugazi did Instrument Jem Cohen brought these big lights out to Roseland and it felt really awkward on stage. What we did differently, which worked, is that we used all digital cameras. They’re much more malleable—you can adjust them on the fly to whatever lighting situation you have and be super stealthy. With Sam, it was super lit up and they looked stiff, they were stiff. This one, not so much.
WCP: In the movie the concert footage is broken up travel montages and interview segments, it’s not just a straight concert film. Why did you make that decision?
Green: Basically we just wanted, the idea was that if you shoot a single concert it’s never going to be very involved. We wanted to do something on being an American band. I was very influenced that Sigur Ros film Heima, it kind of shows what it means to be an Icelandic band. We wanted to show what it’s like being an American band and it’s hard to imagine a more Americana band than Wilco.
Canty: The reason why we put that stuff in there is that it’s hard to get people from once side to the other of a 1.5-hour concert movie. We’re not trying to make the Last Waltz, this is more of a road movie. We wanted a film that contextualized every performance environmentally and also geographically. There’s a lot of footage of the different states that they’re driving through. We booked in Cains Ballroom in Tulsa and the Ryman in Nashville—buildings I knew and loved from Fugazi and the band themselves knew and loved. Those served as a nice backdrop. That’s an important aspect of the whole process for me—that it’s not some isolated weird performance. It’s the getting there, the space, and the people. Also, we try to get the best performances and then sequence them in a way that makes people love them all the more.
It also gives you time. In a single concert film, you don’t have the time to sit with the band and get all the other information. That’s one of the most important aspects of this film. The last film about Wilco, it was all fighting, people were fighting all the time. This is sort of the answer to that. Everything is totally cool now, you see people with a lot of love and mutual respect.
WCP: With the interview footage, were there things you were specifically trying to coax them into talking about, or did you just kind of generate conversations on the fly and get some happy accidents?
Green: Well, a little of both. We had themes we were trying to get at, about America. Like, if you’ve been driving across America on how the towns change. But you never know if that’s going to take, if people are going to able to talk about it. I wouldn’t call it a happy accident, but we got the stuff about Nel’s neck fusing and Jeff losing his voice. It gives you a picture of what it’s like being a 40-year old rock star.
WCP: Wilco’s performances are usually more than two-hours long but the movie doesn’t quite stretch out that far.
Canty: I would never make a two-hour-and-a-half-hour documentary about anything. 1.5 hours is super long it’s hard to get somebody to sit through that. We tried to give it some sort of ebb and flow so you’re not sitting there getting hammered constantly, because fatigue is a huge issue with me. I know when I’m sitting there in a theater they get to the other side of that loud bit of “Handshake Drugs” or “Kingpin”, you’re grateful for the three minutes of talking because you can rest and build back up so you can start hearing things again. Because guitars, man, will fucking kill you, as far as I’m concerned. If I put the loudest most rocking Wilco songs in there for an hour-and-a-half I don’t think anybody would sit through it.
WCP: Did you worry about that breaking up the energy of the performance at all?
Canty: You know I really looked at the in between bits as trying to inform the performances. Like, that introduction piece about traditional music going into the Nashville bit—to me that’s really crucial, not so much for what he says just for the fact that he thinks about it. He thinks about his place in relation to Woody Guthrie or whoever. Then, when you actually see him at the Ryman in a cowboy suit playing “Via Chicago”—which is totally a traditional sounding song that totally deconstructs into absolute noise—to me, that’s totally interesting.
WCP: How much did the performances change from night to night?
Canty: Well, the setlist is always different. Also, the reason why we included “Impossible Germany” in the film is because that night they were having a little bit of a hard time. I mean, it was a long ass drive to Mobile, and it was almost a hurricane outside, and everybody was really whooped. But they hit this point during “Impossible Germany” where Nels did that solo and suddenly it felt like the whole mood of the entire set changed and they all woke up really quickly and the whole audience woke up really quickly. After that, it was a fabulous show to the end.
WCP: There’s a point in the movie where members of the band talk about the Walmart-ification of small town America. What made you want to include that?
Canty: The real estate boom has gone bust at this point or, at least, it’s ebbing. But at the time, a year ago, we were still at this point where places were being torn down to build condominiums all over DC and all over the nation. To me, that’s a threat to the things that I care about in this world. And if you’re out on a bus driving around the country six-months out of the year it’s the kind of thing that will drive you crazy. If you pull into a town and it’s the same as the last town and over and over and over again, then that’s a problem. Everybody has commented on it, it seems a little trite to even mention it. That is the view from the window of this band. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the view from the window of my house. I see these changes all the time across DC. I don’t want to be an old curmudgeon, but we are losing a lot of what made our cities great. From having driven across this country dozens of times it’s not symptomatic it’s actually the problem. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it. Maybe as capitalism fails us, we’ll have a chance of reviving the small town mentality that we used to have.