“Documentary takes look at life, labor of the Gourds”
by Cory Walsh
“Who wants to know anything about what we do?” asks Jimmy Smith, a member of the Austin, Texas, roots-rock band the Gourds. “Who cares?”
The question comes at the beginning of “All the Labor,” a new feature-length documentary made by Missoula-based High Plains Films. The following 96 minutes are a fun, compelling rebuke to Smith’s self-deprecating comment a film suitable for both cult fans and neophytes who may only know the band from its cover of “Gin & Juice.”
Director Doug Hawes-Davis, who has extensive credits in the nature documentary world, wanted to make a tour film along the lines of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags.”
He enlisted the help of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, who co-directed that movie. “If Brendan wouldn’t agree to help, I probably wouldn’t have made this movie,” said Hawes-Davis, who needed Canty’s expertise capturing the audio, and also wanted the “intimate feel” he created on “Ashes.”
“I set out to make a great tour film that fans would enjoy and that if you’re into the genre of music and this was your introduction to the Gourds, you’re not going to be disappointed,” Hawes-Davis said.
The movie combines new footage from 12 to 16 live performances, including one at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula, with 100 hours of archival footage shot by Matt Cook about 20 years ago footage that was never made into a completed film.
“It was literally right at the beginning of their career, or near the beginning,” Hawes-Davis said. “So rather than collecting archival images from fans and people from this whole period of time that’s gone by, it’s kind of a ‘yesterday and today’ thing.”
The archival footage includes a segment on “Gin & Juice,” a Snoop Dogg cover that blew up on Napster in 1998. Despite all the downloads some filed under the wrong band name the exposure never translated into monetary success for the band.
“Here they are, almost 20 years later, sort of still on that same trajectory, making fabulous records and pretty much selling the same number of them each time,” Hawes-Davis said.
Keeping the touring machine going, making a living and having a family life is an undercurrent to the film, one that Hawes-Davis hadn’t anticipated.
After spending time interviewing vocalist and bass player Smith, and Kevin Russell (vocals, guitar, mandolin); Claude Bernard (keyboard, accordion); Max Johnston (fiddle, guitar); and drummer Keith Langford, Hawes-Davis found something of an anti- “Spinal Tap.”
“This is not like a ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ movie,” Hawes-Davis said.
“As we became friends, (we) started to understand what their lives are like and how much effort it is to keep this thing going,” Hawes-Davis said.
While they have a dedicated fan base, it’s a difficult enterprise to maintain.
“That causes tension. Sort of the opposite of the sort of VH1 film, where the tension is excess, drugs. You know, ‘We’ve made too much money for our own good,’ ” he said.
Hence the title: “All the Labor,” taken from a song Smith wrote for the first Gourds album.
“Basically the song is Jimmy’s recognition that it’s a worthy endeavor. It may end up being a labor of love, but that’s OK if that’s all it is,” Hawes-Davis said.
While the band is now “cherrypicking” gigs, Smith said in a phone interview it was workable as long as they lived in a “responsible, resourceful way.”
“I had enough money coming in there. The balance between being a rock ‘n’ roller and being a family man to me was about as perfect as I was gonna get it,” said Smith, who is married with three boys, ages 2, 6 and 9.
“The balance was there: Enough time at home to raise our children, and enough time on the road to keep our fans happy,” he said.
The movie, which was an official selection at South By Southwest’s film festival last month, will be screened through the fall with a planned release of physical and digital copies on Record Store Day, Nov. 26, aka Black Friday.
Naturally, they’re also hoping to release a soundtrack.
“We are working with the band’s label, which is Vanguard Records, to do a soundtrack,” Hawes-Davis said.
As for the music, there’s plenty of it in the film. Much like “Ashes,” it focuses on full-song performances.
“(Doug) wanted to just kind of showcase, you know, the live band aspect of it. Which is probably one of the hardest things to do,” Smith said.
Describing the band’s wide-ranging mesh of American music can be difficult as well.
“I gotta say, it’s hard to pin these guys down. It’s not one thing,” Hawes-Davis said.
You could call them alt-county or roots music.
“They’re also Cajun, bluegrass, they’re folk. Tex-Mex, they do a little bit of garage rock, a lot of Jimmy’s songs are pretty garage rock-influenced, but then they’ve got that organ, the little Tex-Mex beat,” Hawes-Davis said.
As Russell describes it in the film, “It’s blurry. It’s chaotic, it’s highly impressionistic. It can be highly frustrating to the objective mind.”