“All the Labor”
March 14, 2013
by Kathy McConnell
Concert Blogger got the chance to chat with filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis about the documentary, The Gourds and the unique effect the band has on those who experience them. The film premieres this Wednesday at the South By Southwest Film Festival, but you can catch the film’s trailer on http://www.highplainsfilms.org.
Looking through your resume of past films, it seems that choosing the Gourds as your subject matter is kind of a wild card for you. Your previous films have been more political and policy themed. What is it about the Gourds’ story that made you think, “Hey, there might be something here?”
D H-D: You’re right that it’s really different from what we’ve worked on in the past, but it’s only a wild card in that I had never found the right musician or band to do a film about. I always wanted to that, I’m a big fan of music documentaries. It’s just hard to connect and usually in an artist profile, there are a lot of details and there’s a right time for everybody. So, things just kind of came together on this one. I mean, I’ve been a pretty fanatic Gourds fan for a long time, but I met the band two years ago at my tenth Gourds’ show. I’ve been to every show in Missoula pretty much since they started playing here around 2000. I just noticed they get better and better and better, which is kind of unusual for a band. A lot of bands get stale and their greatest recordings are their first recordings. The Gourds are just the opposite of that. Their first recordings are great and every one thereafter has been great. They keep reinventing themselves on each record. So it sort of dawned on me that this is a band that is very deserving. I just kind of asked the guys if any of them had ever done a film and they said, “No.” And I said, “Would you be interested?” And they said, “Yes.” So we figured it out.
And I think in terms of your question about our previous work, I think it’s good for filmmakers to try to reinvent themselves once in a while, too. I love the Gourds, I love their music, I’ve grown to really love the guys in the band and now consider them good friends. But it’s just fun do something different, frankly, and something that isn’t so loaded with political and policy implications. You know, just try to tell a fun story.
Was there a particular Aha! moment, either before filming or during filming, when you realized that this was not only something you wanted to do, but that this could really work?
D H-D: I kind of went into it with the idea that I wanted to make a really great tour film. Not a single performance film like The Last Waltz, but a great tour film. Because really my only knowledge and understanding of the band was seeing them live and if you’ve seen them live you know that they are fantastic. They’re just an incredible live act. My initial goal was to make a great tour film that looks and sounds amazing.
And then, I didn’t really know what the story was until I got to know them and understand a little bit about their lives and their dreams in terms of their music and their art. That’s when the story started to come up and that took a little while. I wasn’t exactly sure. Nothing dramatic happens. Nobody ODs. It’s not a VH1 special.
It’s kind of refreshing.
D H-D: It is. It’s the story of a hardworking band who loves to do it and what it takes to keep it together. I’m sure there are struggles along the way, but in some ways it’s a story common to all of us: how do you make a go of pursuing your life’s dream and it’s not always easy.
The Gourds Â© Joe Ryan
The majority of the public who know of the Gourds, know them because of their cover of “Gin and Juice” or as someone in the film refers to it, their “Free Bird.” After viewing the film, I think it worked to deliver the Gourds away from that association. What techniques did you use in filming and telling the band’s story to shed the looming “Gin and Juice” label from the Gourds? And, how important was this to you and the band?
D H-D: I can only take a tiny bit of credit for that. The question is that you feel the movie transcends the “Gin and Juice” label, and I take that as a compliment because I think that “Gin and Juice” was a brilliant cover. Covers like that are common in country music, people reinventing other people’s songs and it’s happened throughout musical history. So, I think it is brilliant and I don’t want to devalue that, but the Gourds are so much more than that.
What did I do? Well, we shot thirteen shows and several radio performances. We shot and shot and shot. I’m sure this is true for every music documentary, and this is my first outing, but you can have five cameras and there are five guys in the band and think you have everything covered, but everybody has to perform. The band has to perform and the camera guys have to perform to get a scene that is good enough to be in the movie. All I did really is try to capture some of the diversity of what they’re capable of and the excitement of their live performances, so people get the idea that this band is much more than just “Gin and Juice.” But really, the Gourds did that for me. So all I did was compile great performances and hopefully the audience connects with that in a bigger way. I can’t take a lot of credit for that because, really, the point of the movie is to show that this is a great act. They’re not a one-trick pony.
At one point in the film, Kevin says, “I suppose that might be our greatest asset, is that we’re fun, ya know, and we’re happy and we’re having a good time.” At another point, Keith claims, “There’s nothing serious about our band.” In my opinion, your film expresses and highlights this dichotomy that exists within the Gourds, which is that they’re fun and carefree, but at the same time we see clips of a much more serious side to them. Can you talk a little bit about their stage persona versus their private lives and would you beg to differ that there is really something serious about this band.
D H-D: I guess my answer would be that I don’t completely agree with Keith that there is nothing serious and I mean that in a positive way. I think the songwriting is serious, like it’s seriously good. I think he’s just saying that they have a lot of fun and that they don’t take themselves too seriously, but I think the quality of the songwriting, and even the quality of their performances, do kind of say something different. I think Keith is just saying that they don’t take themselves too seriously, which is true I think in both their personal lives and on stage. But, when they’re playing, they’re playing. They don’t play bad shows that I’ve ever seen.
“Gin and Juice” is definitely a less serious song in terms of the writing, but it’s a brilliant cover for those guys. But in my opinion, the songs that Kevin and Jimmy and Max have written and performed are amazing. Again, it’s subjective, but that’s how I feel about it or obviously I wouldn’t have taken a year and a half of my life to make a film about this.
Do you think the Gourds want to be famous? And, do fans really want the Gourds to be famous, or do they fear the band will get wrapped up in that record label hullabaloo we often hear about? In your opinion, would fame have a negative effect on them?
D H-D: I don’t think fame and money would have a negative effect on them. It’s not that I lived with them for a year or anything, I only spent a couple of weeks with them. Kevin says this in the film about Jimmy, that what you see is what you get I think that’s the case with all of them. They never, to me, seemed to be caught up in image whatsoever.
I think that their fans would love to see them become superstars and be super famous, and of course make a little bit more of an easier living from their music. I would love that and I think that all of the dedicated Gourds fans which there are thousands would love to see that. My personal view knowing them is that if anyone could handle it, they can. They’re not that hung up on it. I mean, would they enjoy it? Of course. Kevin says that in the film, that as a entertainer of course you want to achieve success. In all of those different ways, financially and otherwise. But, I feel like they are just doing what they love to do and they don’t have any expectations or sense of entitlement. I feel like if fame came along they would embrace it, but would it change them personally? I doubt it. I should ask the band that.
After I watched the film, after learning about each one of them and growing to love them, I had to stop myself and ask if I really wanted them to blow up because of how genuine they are with their music, how they relate to it and how they strive to always put on a good show. At the end of it, I was kind of conflicted feeling that I really wanted them to get famous, but fearing that fame would make them lose the genuine touch that they have.
D H-D: I don’t think that they would. I think that they are really genuine people and they would probably have a healthy attitude about that, if anyone. Now had they achieved that uber fame when they were 28 or 30… I don’t think I could answer that myself and say I knew if it would have changed me for the worst. I think that those guys are mature enough now that they’re going to be fine with whatever comes along and do well. In terms of the performances, they do take their shows really seriously. I never saw any really small turnouts, but, like, in Los Angeles where there wasn’t as huge of a crowd as in other cities, they still played their asses off.
You are premiering All the Labor this Wednesday at SXSW, which is in Austin. The Gourds are an Austin-based band. What do you think about this film will translate beyond Austinites or Gourds’ fans?
D H-D: I have to say that that is a question that has weighed heavily on my mind since I started making the film. I’ve never entered SXSW before that I recall. We’ve been making films for a long time and it was just never the right timing or whatever. This film was an obvious fit. It was definitely part of my calculus to get this thing done before SXSW because if nowhere else, this film should have a good crowd in Austin.
I’m optimistic that the music will transcend and it’s a good story too. Like I said, it’s not a story about your standard VH1 the rise, fall, and resurrection with drugs and alcohol. It’s not that story, but that doesn’t make it not a good story. I think that how hard they’ve worked and that they’ve stayed together this long, including why that is and how they do it, is a worthy story and people will be interested in that. But ultimately, I think it comes down to if the music will transcend and I think it will. I guess time will tell, right.
And, maybe the Gourds and I were a good match in this sense because I don’t have super high expectations for huge success with this or any other movie that I make. I made this movie because I wanted to make it and I feel that it clearly can be commercially viable, but I’m not looking for it to be in the Carmike 10 necessarily. My expectations of success are sort of on par with the band’s expectations of success. But, I still feel that it is a worthy story to be told and I think if people come to the theater to see it, I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.
What do you hope the audience will walk away with from this film if you had to pick one thing that is most important for them to leave the theater with?
D H-D: That is a great question and one that I should have thought of before this moment. This relates to your last question. If this were a film about Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Springsteen, people would know what to expect. They know who those people are and a lot of people don’t know who the Gourds are. So, I think if you are talking about an audience who comes in not know much about the Gourds, what do I want them to take away that this is really an American original and that this band is on par with those people that I just named. They haven’t achieved the same level of fame or success as Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, but in my opinion they are every bit as talented. So I’d like people to walk away adding the Gourds to their list of the great American bands of all time.