April 16, 2009

'They Love Music the Same Way You Do'

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In the aftermath of the great Uncle Tupelo schism of ’94, I’ve always been a Wilco partisan. From A.M. to Sky Blue Sky, the band – in all of its various iterations and lineups – has produced some of the best music of the past 15 years (or of any years, for that matter). From traditional alt-country – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms – to the “sculpted soundscapes” of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, the band manages to stay true to its roots while reaching far beyond them.
For a band with such a long history and amazing discography, Wilco has not been well represented on the silver screen, excepting the notable entry of
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart which chronicled the production of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and subsequent drama when the record was rejected by Reprise Records (the band took their masters and left, eventually signing with Nonesuch Records, an imprint of Warner Music, the same company that owned Reprise).
Given this, when I heard that a new Wilco concert film,
Ashes of American Flags, was being screened on the 17th and 19th at Cornell Cinema, I jumped at the chance to interview one of the films two directors, Brandon Canty (perhaps best known as the drummer for Fugazi).

The Sun: You’ve filmed a lot of bands, why make a Wilco film, and why now?
Brandon Canty: Basically when they got Nels Cline and then Glenn Kotche and Mikael [Jorgensen] and Pat [Sansone] – this lineup of the band does amazing things to Wilco’s songs. I’ve always loved Wilco, but I feel like this version of Wilco is the most vital because they listen to each other, they play their asses off, they don’t step on each others’ toes and they all seem to be trying to get to this climactic point in every song. To me, each person pushes the other people to get to a point together. It’s really just the fact that they work so well together that amazes me, as well as the sheer virtuosity of Nels and Glenn and really everyone in the band.
To me, all the pieces fit together and I’ve been saying that for a long time – and I’ve been seeing them live for a long time – and I’ve been terrified that they’re going to break up before somebody films what they do live. Part of it is that they are up there getting weird sounds and really pushing it. When I hear them, that’s what I hear at this point – the new things that no one else is doing, and therefore they are pushing the whole movement forward but are still rooted in songs and traditional music, which is totally interesting to me.
Sun: How did you go about filming all the different concerts?
B.C.: We shot all those concerts – we have plenty of footage – and it was really just after shooting ten days straight we just had to make a set list that worked and kept people from getting bludgeoned or burnt out before the hour and a half. It’s a tricky thing ;there’s a real skill to creating a set list. We tried to show songs that actually grew – the writing is such that the songs themselves, and the shows themselves, have these little miniature arcs to them or feeling in terms of the way they built their songs. We knew we were going to shoot full songs and if you’re going to do that you really have to look for the song to say more than one thing.
Sun: With six albums, along with Jeff Tweedy’s solo work, the band has a tremendous back catalogue. How did you decide which songs to include in the film?
B.C.: Well there are a lot of factors: how well we shot it, how well they played it, how well they sang it, how good the lights were, so that stuff got worked out pretty quick. If the whole song is really good but the lights were off we just can’t use that. There are lots of factors; they could play it great and the lights could work and we just don’t cover it right, we didn’t shoot it well. We have these moments where we’re like zombies, we all shoot crap for a minute and wind up with no coverage.
Sun: This is the second film you’ve worked with Jeff Tweedy on (the other being Sunken Treasure: Live In The Midwest). What was it like to work with him and the rest of the band?
B.C.: They’re the best people to work with, really super hands-off. They decided they wanted us to do it and then they let us do it and they didn’t meddle – they didn’t have us change anything. They were really supportive, really happy to have the film out there, but let it be our thing, too. I really feel like they’re our family at this point.
Sun: Unlike most rock stars, especially in film, they seem so down to earth.
B.C.: I think a lot of people are pretty down to earth, it just depends on how you want to portray them in the film. I don’t have any patience for glorifying iconography, it’s not something I’ve ever had patience for, it’s just a lazy way to get people to like a band to over-glorify them and make them into rock stars. I lived in that world forever and people aren’t like that, you know? Most bands are just fucking music geeks. They love music the same way you do and they have their own band and they live it. If you go on the Wilco bus people are playing the records they bought that day in the shops and they’re psyched about. They’re just like anybody else who’s really into music. I think that’s the main thing, that they’re just people who love music and like to play music together.

Ashes of American Flags will be showing at Cornell Cinema at Willard Straight Hall at these times:
* Friday, April 17, 10:00, WSH
* Sunday, April 19, 7:15, WSH