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Breaking Through the Inertia with The Inertia Variations – a Look at the Creative Process through Matt Johnson, of The The

March 25, 2017
bradspurgeon

The Inertia Variations

The Inertia Variations

COPENHAGEN – For the 15 years prior to the film “The Inertia Variations,” musician Matt Johnson, the lead guy in the British 1980s-90s band, “The The,” had not performed any music, had not finished writing any songs – although he had started a lot of them – and for many years had even ceased to touch his guitars at all. That sounds like a lot of inertia. His absence from the music scene has resulted in his Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the reclusive” Matt Johnson.† But in this new film, made by his ex-wife, Johanna St. Michaels, – which had its international premiere at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen Thursday night – while we see that he is certainly something of a loner, not only has he been occupied with many other projects – photography, writing those unfinished songs, working on a book – but above all, creating a radio station in his home in London that broadcasts the old-fashioned way – with an antenna – to try to communicate with and inform people about politics in a way that they are not exposed to in the mainstream media. So how reclusive can that be? And for that matter, how much inertia could it all entail?

In fact, questions of inertia are woven throughout the film, with much existential questioning in the many different perceptions of himself both by others and from within himself about who he really is and what he really wants to do in life, and they make up the main, driving thrust behind this film. It remains interesting from beginning to the end through what amounts to raising such universal questions about the creative process and the question of identity that affect us all.

The film centers around a 12-hour nonstop, live radio show from his home station – Radio Cineola – during the British election, and clearly, for Johnson this aspect of his life is the most important thing at the moment. Obviously, for fans of The The, and for his former – and to a degree – his current, wife, there is the lingering question: “When will you make more music?!” Part of Johnson himself clearly wants to create more music too. The film shows that there is even an aching part of him that has been wanting to continue to create and play new songs for a while now. But he can never finish anything, and part of him, he says, is quite lazy. Others say it too. And in some very bizarre ways, we see codes he creates in his life to make it simpler that could also be considered a form of laziness: He shows off, and explains, that he always wears the same type of pants and shirt, a whole series of which he has had tailor-made for him to avoid having to make a choice on what clothes to wear (this reminded me of Steve Jobs, by the way). In fact, this “lazy” part of his personality echoed in my mind the comical Oblomov character from Russian literature.

But what the film ends up making very clear, and what really becomes its focus, is the horrendous battle that Johnson appears to be undergoing with what a fiction writer would call “writer’s block.” And there is a touch of what he himself wonders about in a conversation with his father: A fear of both success and a fear of failure. Given that The The was a successful band with music that has profoundly affected generations of fans – even if it is far from being a household name, and the songs themselves never broke into the popular global consciousness – Johnson has a reputation to live up to if he is to “replicate” the kind of success he had in the first couple of decades of the band, before his split from music.

The Inertia Variations trailer

Part of him is happy living the clearly comfortable life he has. He has all the material needs anyone could want, he has lots of recording and playing equipment in his home; he has the radio station (with the science-fiction-like antenna that he mounted on the roof of his building); he apparently owns the whole building, and he is constantly fighting against developers who want to buy it to put up more high-rises – referring to himself as a conservationist. He is also a bit of a landlord, renting out parts of the building – it seems. He still has projects involved with the rights to The The. This is a full, and to most people in our world, enviable life.

So for me, the film is, above all, the story not only of a man’s creative process, but also of the difference between his own creative needs and expectations of himself, as opposed to the expectations that others have of him. That takes us back to the idea that he is a recluse just because he is no longer making music.

But, I feel, the key to understanding him lies in the book-ends of important deaths in his family: The death of his brother, Eugene at age 24 in 1989 he said changed his view of life, and affected him profoundly. It seems to have affected the momentum of the band, The The. And 10 years later, his mother, heartbroken with Eugene’s death, died. That coincides with the final The The album, NakedSelf, in 2000.

Then, while the film was being made, another of his brothers died – in January 2016 – and this was Andrew, the artist who did some album covers for The The and other bands. Matt was actually working on a book with Andrew, and is clearly shattered. It is this death that drives Matt Johnson to actually, and finally, once again, finish a song. A song for Andrew. The film ends in a deluge of emotion as Johnson finally performs the song, at his home in front of people, in front of the cameras, on his radio, in what was his first public performance in 15 years. And it is shocking just how good the song is, and how his voice, despite years without use, remains fabulous.

It also turns out that the song, called, “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – which features the guitar work of Johnny Marr, who played with him often in the past – will be released as a single on April 22. So could it be that Matt Johnson finally managed to write a song simply because the song had to be written?  Could it be that the need to write a song for his brother overshadowed any need he had to match his own high achievements of the past that he feared not being able to live up to?  That only one thing mattered, and that was to express himself for Andrew, through a song – no matter the quality?

That, in any case, is the way that I read it. Whatever the reason, whatever the story behind the motivations and workings of his mind, this beautiful and intimate film, which uses fictional film techniques, is a tender, thought-provoking tale from the beginning to the end. The Inertia Variations is also beautifully filmed, and has a wonderful soundtrack – by The The – a real treasure, so thank goodness Johanna and Matt have managed to remain friends and he allowed her to make this film that had been on her mind for many years.

Thanks goodness also that Matt – as he said in the talk after the film – just left the concept of the film up to her rather than doing what he would have liked to do, which was to really promote his passion of the moment by putting in more about the political messages he is trying to convey with his radio station….

UPDATE, 26 March 2017: Here is a podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels. I have kept the 15 minutes in the Q&A (which I recorded with my Zoom recorder sitting on my lap), but I have cut out the further 20 minutes of talk where the public asks questions.

UPDATE, 27 March 2017: Here is a second part to the podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels with the questions from the audience. I had decided not to put up this portion of the Q&A – which is just as rich as the first part – but after a request from a reader/listener, I decided to put it up as well:

Actually, it is the Wikipedia page for the band, The The, that refers to him as “the reclusive Johnson”….

The Sounds and Visions of CPH:DOX: A Podcast Conversation with Adam Thorsmark

March 23, 2017
bradspurgeon

Adam Thorsmark

Adam Thorsmark

COPENHAGEN – The reason I came to attend the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival this week – which I have been reporting on extensively on this blog – is because it has a special section called “Sound & Vision,” that focuses on music documentaries, as well and another part to it that draws together interesting music groups and visual things – such as the concert by Tindersticks in conjunction with an old documentary, Minute Bodies; or a concert by a Danish band called Shiny Darkly at a film about the career of rock photographer Mick Rock. The man who is the head of both of these musicl sub-categories of the festival is a 32-year-old Dane named Adam Thorsmark. Adam studied film, but is above all a music lover, and has always combined in his career the mix of film and music. In addition to writing music reviews for various publications and other music and film related jobs, it was therefore no surprise that since 2011 he became the head of these music activities at the festival, also known as CPH:DOX.

I had the great luck to find myself being allowed to meet and interview Adam yesterday in the restaurant of the main festival hall. My original idea had been to write a Q&A for this blog from the interview, but suddenly I realized that for a Sound & Vision section of the film festival, it made much more sense to edit the half hour interview down into a podcast. So here is the interview, and please excuse the ambient noise of the restaurant… or perhaps it is a better idea to appreciate it and hear just how lively is this CPH:DOX festival. And to appreciate through the sound of his voice, especially, Adam’s enthusiasm for his job, the official title of which is: Head of Regional Activities & Music.

Podcast interview with Adam Thorsmark Head of Music at CPH:DOX, with Brad Spurgeon

A Seminar, an Interview and then a long wait followed by an explosion of emotion – Day Whatever at CPH:DOX

March 23, 2017
bradspurgeon

Tjili Pop

Tjili Pop

COPENHAGEN – Just about the only really good thing that comes out of a three-hour wait at an open mic to get behind the microphone and be “allowed” to sing only ONE song because there’s no longer any time left in the evening at just after 11 PM is that you have a very good reason to want to put your whole heart and soul and physically being into the song you sing. And that is what happened to me last night as I sang “Mad World” at the Tjili Pop open mic, called Speake’s Corner, in Copenhagen.

I was the first or second musician to arrive for the open mic at 8:30 p.m., but the open mic takes place after a “concert” of four different bands or musicians from roughly 8:30 to what ended up being after 11:00 p.m., and buy the time I got behind the mic it was 11:20 and I was told that I could only do one song. All the participants of the open mic only did one song. Then, of course, my Seagull guitar failed to work through the sound system – the only place it has worked out of the three open mics I’ve done in Copenhagen so far is at the first, and best of them: CPH Listening Room. I wonder if there is a reason for that!
First at Tjili Pop in Copenhagen

Anyway, the Tjili Pop bar is otherwise an absolutely fabulous room, cramped, cool, hippie-like, and broken up into different sectors, so if you want to talk you can go to another room, away from the music room. Not that many people did!

I did managed to fill my time waiting with three beers – I really only wanted one beer and three songs, but … – and a fish and chips meal that was not bad at all.
Fourth at Tjili in cph

The place was crammed with people, and by the time I got behind the mic and belted out Mad World – I think I was the only person to sing a cover song all night, but I did that as a rebellious statement (!) – I was really not happy, and really ready to take full advantage of the pulpit and go crazy. All the alcohol helped too….

It had otherwise been a great day at the CPH:DOX film festival. In the morning I had attended a conference about the question of whether or not to serialize a documentary film – i.e., turn it into several films – with the highly experienced and interesting Thom Powers, who selects the films for several important film festivals among many other things.
Another at the Tjili open mic

I also did an interview with the man who selects the films and music for the CPH:DOX festival, Adam Thorsmark. I will be posting that interview in the form of a podcast very soon in a separate post….

Anyway, despite my frustration with the crazy Tjili joint, I have now done three open mics in Copenhagen, and there are plenty more available. So ultimately, I am absolutely delighted with what this city has to offer in the way of open mics, and I never expected so much.

Two Films and a Second Open Mic – Copenhagen’s Mojo’s Workin’

March 22, 2017
bradspurgeon

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN – It was tight timing, but it was a reflection of just about everything else in this tightly organized festival and my trip to attend CPH:DOX and play at open mics: I had a film at 7 p.m., followed by a film at 9 p.m. followed by an open mic at 11 p.m. And despite the rain, hail, snow, freezing weather and wind, I managed to achieve all three things. (I exaggerate only slightly on the cold, horrible, depressing Copenhagen weather.) The most fun in all that? Maybe all three, the totality. From the “Sour Grapes” documentary about a wine fraud, to the snippets of a cameraperson’s filming life in the film called “Cameraperson” to the open mic at Mojo with more Copenhagen singer songwriters, it was all about as good as it gets….

The wine film was a delight, as I have a very strong interest in wine as well as in wine frauds, as one of my very first unsold novels, “Bacchanalia,” dealt with an imaginary wine fraud story in the 1980s, and was inspired by the true-to-life wine fraud over fake bottles of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. (I posted my many-times-rejected article on that very story of the Thomas Jefferson wines on my blog a few years ago.) This film is a similar, but actually much wilder story of a young Indonesian who ingratiates himself to the wine world in the U.S. in the 2000s and ends up selling 10s of millions of dollars of fake wine to collectors before being caught and put in prison. A lively story, and one of the most amazing aspects is how his victims fail to believe it is really possible that this guy did this, even once it has been made crystal clear by the discovery by federal agents of all the evidence they needed in the man’s home.
Cameraperson trailer

From that film I rushed over to another cinema – both cinemas and the open mic bar were close walking distance to my hotel – and attended the film “Cameraperson,” which is a series of outtakes and other moments from documentary films and reportages that Kirsten Johnson, a filmmaker and cinematographer, put together over her career. It includes some sad, touching moments with her mother during her final period with Alzheimer’s Disease. Johnson asks us to see the film as her version of a memoir. It is full of some very touching and strange moments of film – as for instance when she is filming a woman in the throes of anger against her mother’s suicide, when suddenly a huge mass of snow comes sliding off the room of her home outside the window, as if the mother was trying to communicate from the other side….

“Cameraperson” lasted longer than I had expected, and so I did not get out of the cinema until 22:49, and while I had planned to run back to the hotel, grab my guitar and return to the open mic, I was now faced with the reality that I would arrive at the open mic after 23:00 if I did that, and I had been told that it started at around 23:00. It took place in a blues bar called Mojo, and while it may be famous as a blues bar, the Monday night event is a singer songwriter open mic. So I was really looking forward to doing it, and decided I had better go first, without my guitar.

Besides, it was yet another night of rain in Copenhagen, where it has rained every day I have been here. Moreover, the rain was at its worst – as far as I could see – at that moment. So I walked over to Mojo, walked into this nice, warm, mainly wooden, cowboy-saloon-like joint, with a beautiful little stage across from the front door, and I found that the open mic had not yet begun.
Sour Grapes trailer

I eventually met the MC, the organizer of the open mic, Kira Martini, and she told me that it would run from shortly after 23:00 until about 1 a.m. So I had plenty of time to return to my hotel to take my guitar. I could also use hers, she said. But since it was a nylon-string guitar, I chose to return to the hotel. I immediately regretted that decision when I walked into the hail of gale-force winds and finally arrived at my hotel with soaking wet feet and jeans. But somehow I felt great that I would have the security of my own guitar.
another at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

The open mic, when I returned, was in full swing. It had a similar vibe to it to the CPH Listening Room open mic of the night before in that the audience, for the most part, was there to listen, and the performers performed only their own songs. And most of the songs were fairly quiet, personal, singer songwriter songs – as opposed to anything rockin’. The only person who decided to do a cover song was Kira, who at the request of a client, sang a famous Brazilian song, as the last one of the night (I think). It was a beautiful moment even so – and I still think there is a place for doing cover songs, even in a singer songwriter night. (Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and a few others would no doubt have thought so too!)
first at mojo open mic in Copenhagen

Anyway, I was, in the end, ecstatic about having achieved all of my goals in that very short period of time available. What an amazing week so far, at the halfway point of this visit to Copenhagen for me. Oh, the only problem was that after all the effort of going back to my hotel to take my guitar, no sooner did I finish doing my presentation of the first song than my guitar – which had worked on the soundcheck – suddenly decided to pull a temper tantrum and not speak through the pickup. We had to mic the guitar separately. But in the end, I think it sounded better that way!
Kira at Mojo

At the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival – What a Sight & Sound!

March 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

COPENHAGEN – I arrived yesterday afternoon in Copenhagen for a weeklong experience of attending the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival – CPH:DOX – and found myself in a world I was made for. The first good omen was to discover that my hotel is planted right beside the winter circus building near the central station (which my previous post gives some sense to as a statement) as well as being within a few minutes’ walking distance from most of the festival venues. Then, the first two films and events I attended foreshadow a week of fabulous experiences. It’s hard to say which of the two films I liked better: The Mumford & Sons in South Africa one, or the story of Mick Rock, the rock photographer! But let me backtrack….

I decided to come to the festival partly as an educational experience as I finish up my own documentary – Out of a Jam: the worldwide open mic adventure – since, as it turns out, CPH:DOX has a vast, fabulous section called “Sound & Vision,” which is all about music documentaries.

Aside from that, CPH:DOX is one of the top documentary film festivals in the world. Founded in 2003, it quickly became a major event in the documentary film industry, showing more than 200 films each year. This year, in addition to the Sound & Vision part of the festival, there are some very interesting filmmakers and films that are being presented, showcased and premiered. And it is not just films, of course, but panels, workshops, seminars, and happenings. There are many personalities present from within or outside the documentary film industry world, like even Bernard-Henri Levy, the French writer and philosopher, here to talk about his film The Battle of Mosul, which is making its world premiere at the festival. There is Kirsten Johnson, the camerawoman who is here to talk and present her film, Cameraperson.

Mumford and Sons

Mumford and Sons


And there are bands, bands, bands, and music films, music films, music films. So it was that I saw the fabulously interesting film called, Mumford & Sons: We Wrote This Yesterday, that documents a tour in South Africa by the band Mumford & Sons. But what makes the film most interesting, and gives it its title, is the middle section, where they write and record an album in two days in Johannesburg with some African musicians, in a freaky weird looking, claustrophobic recording and practice studio. It is full of insight into the creative process.

Mumford & Sons: We Wrote This Yesterday trailer

I found it interesting how the film had very few actual musical performance of the band, as it consisted mostly of voiceovers of the musicians seen in action creating their music, or touring or living life on tour. I had expected it to be a concert film. But it is anything but. I suspect that the point of that was that the producers, director – it was directed by Sam Wrench – figure that most of the people who will want to see the film already know Mumford & Sons music, or can play the albums. So the film serves a different purpose. And, by the way, the absolutely breathtaking views of some of the cities – Cape Town comes to mind – also make the film an excellent introduction to a visual idea of what South Africa can be, for people who have no idea….

And then there was…Mick Rock and the evening of rock photos, music legends, another rock photographer and a Danish band

The beauty of this festival is that you can run from one cinema to another within a few minutes – practically. Having said that, my Samsung Galaxy has been on zero battery (thanks to having to use GPS all the time) almost since I arrived in Kierkegaard’s city, and I have been in a state of existential madness trying to find places to charge between my various moments of this gruelling, grinding schedule on Day 1….

Mick Rock

Mick Rock

But, with the Mumford & Sons film being a theoretical 6-minute walk away from the venue of the next place I had on my schedule, I was nevertheless delighted to be able to race through the brisk air – I went from summer in Paris to winter in Copenhagen – over to the Bremen Teater to have three-part night: A talk by a Danish rock music photographer followed by a film by the No. 1 rock music photographer, followed by a performance by a Danish rock band.

Trailer for Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock

To focus on the film Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock: Mick Rock was no doubt rock music’s most famous photographer. If you think of the iconic images of David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and many more, then you will have to turn your attention toward Mick Rock to find out how they were made. Rock (whose real name is Rock, and clearly works well in the title of the film) kind of fell into the photography game, after a classic British education that culminated in attending Cambridge University. Then all the rest of his life went entirely haywire.

This film, SHOT! works on so many different levels. It is a joy to watch to see the various rare, intimate moments of many of the subjects – and they go from Bowie and those others mentioned above all the way up to Father John Misty – but also to the engaging contact with the “narrator” who is Rock himself. His narration of his own dissolute life in both the sense of his understanding his life, and the way he looks from the outside, may not be entirely something that the spectator agrees with – although he himself says that at the worst moment of his life he felt a complete failure. It is engaging because we have an educated man observing the world of rock & roll of the last nearly 50 years with that intelligent and cultivated mind. But at the same time, he shows himself to be a “victim” of the period – the excessive drug use, not sleeping for seven days once, excess again….

And the film combines both directorial devices, a kind of fictional story-telling as it tries to recreated and use as the pivotal moment of Rock’s life his three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery in 1996 while only in his early 40s along with some exceptional recordings that Rock apparently made on cassette tapes of conversations he had in the 1970s with his friends David Bowie and Lou Reed.

It proved also to be exceptionally interesting and almost troubling, to have had before the film started the talk given by the Danish rock music photographer Søren Solkær – who has photographed people like Damon Albarn, Amy Winehouse, Bjork amongst many others, (i.e., the Arctic Monkeys from their beginnings) – but who seemed to want to kill his predecessor in the classic way of the mentors’ pupil needing to come into his own…. In his talk beforehand, he talks about when he met Mick Rock, in a somewhat disdainful description: He said Rock went about yelling that his subject was about to be photographed by the great, legendary Mick Rock, etc. And he described how comic it appeared to see Rock doing various Yoga exercises before a shoot – a ritual later confirmed in the film itself.

In any case, it was a fine talk – all in English! – and made for a good critical backdrop before the film so that we are not, as an audience, too sucked into the legend that Rock himself wishes to portray in the film.
Shiny Darkly at CPH:DOX

After the film I wandered up into the room outside the auditorium, the entrance bar to the cinema – a grand old cinema complex, by the way – to listen to some of the music of the Danish band – a band that Soren has photographed – called Shiny Darkly. I did some videos of that with my Zoom, as my telephone as I previously mentioned, was without battery most of the afternoon and evening, and so I could not record with my new Osmo, which I really wanted to do, since it depends on the use of the Samsung for both the vision and software.

In any case, speaking of “vision,” I think this festival is going to be full of some fabulous days ahead, which I will try to document daily on this blog….

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