Coast to Coast with a Camera and the Wrens


By Jon Langmead

If you’ve been to a Wrens show in the past year, you may have seen the folks from Little Quill productions running around the stage and filming away. They have been traveling across the country with the band for over a year now, pulling together more than 100 hours of live concert footage and interviews with the band, their families, and their associates. Judging from the video available on Little Quill’s website, the filmmakers have gone far beyond just shooting performances to put the band’s work and back story into context. While there’s no shortage of music-related documentaries available, the Wrens are a band whose story is particularly worth being committed to film. In a nutshell, it goes like this: The small New Jersey band seems poised for breakthrough but turns down a big-dollar recording contract and struggles with the music industry while its members get day jobs. They hole up for four years, working obsessively on an album, The Meadowlands, which is released ultimately on a small Berkeley, California, label to heaps of deserving national praise. The members keep their day jobs while playing sold-out shows around the country. PopMatters talked to Michaela Drapes, Daniel Cohen, and Kathryn Yu from Little Quill, and they filled us in on how the project is coming along as it moves closer to completion and the film-festival circuit.

How did you convince the Wrens to let you follow them around the country and invade their lives for over a year?
Michaela Drapes: I suggested to my friends that we make a documentary about the Wrens after seeing them at South By Southwest in 2004. And getting in touch with the band and having them sign on for the project was a lot easier than you would think. We wrote a proposal and they agreed to do it. The rest is, as they say, history.
Daniel Cohen: Conception to execution took two or three months. Knowing what I know now about how accommodating and generous they all are, I doubt they would have said no even if we’d been totally half-assed about it. But we weren’t totally half-assed about it, and they figured that out pretty quickly. It did take a little while before I felt like they trusted us, which is perfectly reasonable and understandable. We sat down with them in January and showed them a bunch of footage we shot and I think it was at that point, six months into production, that they got a sense of our ambition.

Did you have a specific focus going in as to what this movie would be about: A band on tour? A band making a record? a band fighting with their label? Has that changed as you’ve gotten deeper into filming?
KY: A lot of the drama has already happened—the label problems, the near-break-up of the band, recording in the basement for years at a time. Now they’re a bunch of guys who are seeing more success than they thought possible. They’re still fighting the good fight, but now it’s about jobs, families, homes, and balancing work and art, and less about the big bad music industry.
DC: I could personally care less about tour movies and making-of movies, and I think those tropes are completely exhausted. Why would you make a movie about “a band on tour”? You might as well make a movie about going to Six Flags with your parents. I’d rather see movies about bands that deal with human pathos and emotions and attempt to portray their characters as people. So much of the brevity and repetition of music criticism results in caricature, and one of the tasks of the documentary filmmaker can be to provide relevant insight that goes beyond the EPK, for better or worse. That’s not to say that I’m disappointed that no Wren went to rehab or threw a coke party or beat up the lead singer of the Dandy Warhols in the last year-and-a-half. Their normalcy is part of their riddle.

You travel in the van with the band when they tour, right?
DC: I didn’t have any illusions. Touring can be lonely and mundane and disconnected, but if you thrive off it, it can be a really productive and creatively engaging milieu. I’ve had some incredibly intellectually stimulating conversations driving across Indiana; I’ve eaten some downright terrifying sandwiches at a hundred identical Subways.

Did you go into this as fans of the band? How do you keep some objectivity when making the film?
KY: I’m a huge fan of the band, and have been since I discovered Secaucus, the second Wrens album. Choosing to make a movie about any subject is kind of like waving a flag saying, “I think this is interesting!” and jumping up and down. You don’t sink several years of your life and tons of money into something you think is boring or that you don’t care about. But it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have to glamorize or fawn over your subject. We’re not in this to make a two-hour piece on “Why the Wrens rule.”
DC: I didn’t like the Wrens at all when I heard them the first few times. I’m instinctively suspicious of anything that comes out of nowhere with that much hype, and I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying, and I think I just said it was really derivative and left it at that. But I kept coming back to it and figured out the words, and then I realized that I didn’t exactly know who they were ripping off. This ended up being my favorite thing about their music, because you can cite all these influences, and they won’t have heard of them—for example, the Feelies. I remember once listening to “Take a Picture” by Filter in the van with Kevin and Greg Whelan, the Wrens’ guitarist. How can you resent an indie-rock band that listens to Filter?

Who have you interviewed for the film? Is there anyone you’re particularly interested in interviewing that you haven’t been able to?
KY: We’ve talked to John Vanderslice, Jim Testa (Jersey Beat), Cory Brown (Absolutely Kosher), Tim Kasher (Cursive), Ryan Craven (Kork Agency), Ryan Schreiber (Pitchfork), Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater), Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Hugo Lingren (New York magazine), Eric T. Miller (Magnet), Punchdrunk, Galen Polivka (The Hold Steady), Arye Dworken (‘Sup Magazine), Pete Hoffman (Mendoza Line), Carrie Klein (Tag Team Media), Ben Armstrong (Head of Femur), John Richards (KEXP), and various friends, coworkers, and family members.
DC: I would still like to talk to Alan Meltzer, who owned their old record label, Grass; Robert Christgau from the Village Voice; Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes, whose own career and touring life has kind of gotten in the way

It seems like there have been a lot of documentaries on musicians available lately: Dig!, The Fearless Freaks on the Flaming Lips, A Good Band is Easy to Kill on Beulah, We Jam Econo about the Minutemen, Some Kind of Monster. Why so many? Have you been watching them or do you try to stay away from other movies on bands?
KY: I suppose it’s a combination of rock ‘n’ roll being inherently sexy and mysterious, documentary filmmaking equipment getting easier to get a hold of, and an increased interest in independent music in general and what makes bands like Wilco or the Flaming Lips tick. A lot of documentary films coming out these days are years in the making, regardless of subject matter, so maybe it’s just really good timing. And the movie business is realizing that fans are willing and hungry to buy up a band’s tour documentary DVD or music-videos collection. I guess the short list of what films we take inspiration from would have to include Instrument, The Last Waltz, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and Some Kind of Monster.
DC: If we were in a band, we wouldn’t stop listening to other bands. If anything, I’ve tried to watch as many documentaries as possible in the last year and a half, music-related and otherwise. It can be helpful from a technical standpoint to see, in particular, how other filmmakers approach the issue of filming live bands; the small rock club is not the best filming environment. That Minutemen documentary, in particular, really stuck out for me as just an exceptional film, and I’m happy to admit that it’s influenced some of my own shot selection. I’d like to say that the Metallica movie influenced my sound design, but we can’t afford a PD-6, much less a crane.

In making this film, what memories stand out so far?
DC: Going with guitarist Charles Bissell to the Tape Op conference in New Orleans this past June. I got to film his panel down there, which made for an interesting juxtaposition—a mild-mannered home recordist speaking to a giant room full of industry professionals. Later Charles and I got absolutely shitfaced and saw Shellac play in the Howlin’ Wolf, one of this nation’s great rock-club hellholes.

Where are you at with the making of the film and what are your upcoming plans?
KY: We hope to be getting into the cutting room in a few months, spending some quality time with the Wrens in the recording studio (a.k.a. the second bedroom) and looking at the submission schedules for upcoming festivals in 2007. If all else fails, we’ll be projecting the film on the side of a warehouse at 3 A.M. in the outer reaches of Brooklyn.
DC: It’s slow, but we’re getting there. I hope to be done with principal filming by the end of the year and begin cutting shortly thereafter. We’re hoping for a final cut by next fall in time for the submission deadlines for the early 2007 film festivals. Somewhere in there I am going to graduate from college, lose my health insurance and wind up living with 17 cats, destitute and penniless, in an abandoned mansion like Edith Bouvier in Grey Gardens. And then we’ll go to Sundance.

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