Music

Looper: The Snare

Kevin Smith

Looper

The Snare

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2002-06-18
UK Release Date: 2002-06-24
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THE PEACOCK MANIFESTO
by Stuart David
I.M.P. Fiction
April 2001, 160 pages, £7.99

by Kevin Smith
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Glasgow's Own Rhinestone Cowboy

After years of juggling his two careers of musician (first as bassist with Belle & Sebastian and later with side project turned primary vehicle Looper) and writer (1999's novel Nalda Said), Stuart David has devised an unusual way to merge his dual passions into one singular project. Well, sort of.

Over the course of two fine albums, Looper have established themselves as purveyors of breezy, seemingly effortless, lo-fi electronica. Employing the bedroom composer's arsenal of programmed beats, samples, and primitive synthesizers, David, along with wife Karn and younger brother Ronnie Black, added their own blend of spontaneity, lighthearted humor, and gleeful experimentation to an otherwise largely somber genre. As suggested by spoken word tracks such as Up a Tree's "Impossible Things #2" and The Geometrid's "My Robot" as well as "Spaceboy Dream" from Belle & Sebastian's The Boy with the Arab Strap, David has long been interested in finding an outlet for his prose as well as his lyrics. He was finally able to fully indulge that muse with the release of Nalda Said, a well-received story about an isolated, secretive, and possibly unstable young man. David has now chosen to coincide the release of Looper's third album with his second novel -- the former serving as a sort of soundtrack to the latter. In an effort to blur the (sometimes already barely perceptible) line between art and life, the book's cover depicts David dressed as his novel's titular character Peacock Johnson replete with handlebar moustache and Hawaiian shirt. Furthermore, the press release goes on to promise that during Looper's ensuing tour the entire band will portray characters from the book. If this limited bit of information brings to mind Styx's career ending Kilroy Was Here album and accompanying rock opera debacle, I, for one, can assure you that you are not alone.

If you believe everything you read, the idea for the project came to David via an American tour bus driver they once employed known simply as Evil Bob. Bob related the story of a failed attempt to break into the music business along with Glasgewian Peacock Johnson. David subsequently contacted Peacock to develop the tale into a novel but a public debate ensued when Peacock felt he was not properly credited for his input. Peacock went so far as to hack into Looper's website to tell his side of the story before a settlement was reached. Whether these events actually transpired or are the result of an overactive mind and overzealous marketing department are anyone's guess (but my money is on the latter).

The Peacock Manifesto is a relatively slim volume told from the point of view of Peacock himself. Peacock's sole mission in life is to turn Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" into a dance song and the fact that he knows absolutely nothing about music isn't about to stop him. Peacock flys to Chicago to meet Evil Bob who is tipped as the man who can help turn Peacock's dream into reality. When it turns out Bob is equally clueless about music, Peacock is forced to partner with him more out of fear of having his idea stolen than simple camaraderie. The transcontinental petty criminals then embark on a journey across America in an attempt to see their idea to fruition. In typical road trip fashion numerous unforeseen mishaps occur including brushes with the law, Karaoke, and Graceland. First they travel to Portland to meet up with a would be producer who takes them for DJs. In a drunken phone call home Peacock boasts to his wife about their chaotic but lucrative set. When he realizes he no longer has an excuse to not invite her to join him they travel to Los Angeles to meet her and simultaneously find a credible producer. Bev (portrayed by Karn David) has a Hollywood fixation and an unpleasant disposition. When it becomes clear that her priorities, as well as temperament, significantly differ from Peacock and Bob's, entirely new forms of disaster follow.

Aside from excessive use of a certain expletive and the unfathomable use of the word "wee", the book is light yet compelling. And don't let the fact that it's written in working class Scottish colloquial put you off (be thankful he doesn't resort to Irvine Welsh-like phonetics). Though not the most original of idioms (it frequently reads like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles featuring a techno version of Spinal Tap), it nevertheless manages to entertain as well as provide some (perhaps exaggerated) insight into the inner workings of the music business. The story is relentlessly linear and character development is minimal but the fact that our narrator is not exactly enlightened serves to explain the situation somewhat. The tough guy demeanor may not exactly appeal to the indie rock demographic but if you want a light yet entertaining read look no further.

While The Snare is ostensibly intended as a musical accompaniment to The Peacock Manifesto, their similarities do not seem readily apparent. While the novel is a black comedy, the album seems to have no such, however subsumed, levity. The disc is a darker affair than previous efforts, relying on trip hop as well as urban influenced beats. The band attempts to conjure a moody film noir atmosphere by utilizing horns, upright bass, and electric piano as well as David's newfound deep, throaty singing voice. Add to this a prominently featured hammer dulcimer on a number of tracks, which bears an uncanny similarity to Lalo Schifrin's "Danube Incident" sample on Portishead's "Sour Times", and the result is an album that lacks its own distinctive voice. Tracks like "She's a Knife" or "New York Snow" in particular (or any of them really) end up sounding like a cross between Missy Elliot and John Barry though I can't imagine them appealing to fans of either. Looper appear to be grappling with the difficult third album syndrome by attempting a change in direction and, I'm sorry to say, the results aren't always pretty. It's always admirable when a band makes an effort to expand their palette (even though many of their fans only appreciate the move in hindsight) but it's hard to shake the feeling that Looper are looking backward rather than forward for their inspiration.

Just what the disc really has to do with the book is another matter altogether. Aside from the band continuing to dress the part on the cover, I'm still really not sure. The lyrics are vague enough not to directly reference the book or its plot and the song "Peacock Johnson" is no exception. Evil Bob is credited with playing saxophone and various other instruments, but as far as I'm concerned his very existence is still debatable. The album's highlight, though, the closer "Fucking Around", sticks out like a sore thumb. After a typically dreary opening the song launches into a (very Belle & Sebastian) flugel horn and bouncy electric piano. While the song's lyrics could easily refer to Peacock and Bob, I much prefer to think they apply to Looper's slightly more unstructured working methods and their subsequent results. "Fucking around / Don't get excited we're just fucking around …We're only messing about here / We're only having fun". Perhaps what Stuart David really needs is a little more fucking around and slightly less reliance on elaborate concepts.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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