Chris Brokaw's Stormy Documentary, Part Two
"Well I've always had a deep respect, And I mean that most sincerely."
Yesterday we began a fascinating conversation with punk, folk, rock musician, and now documentary producer, Chris Brokaw, on a project which illuminates how the most important rock and roll art was created, and by whom.
Brokaw's documentary subject is Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, a leading designer and design firm in London which works with the top record labels and many of their past and current artists, such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Phish, AC/DC, Genesis, Foreigner, Peter Gabriel, Yes and The Cranberries, among others.
Yesterday's conversation covered Chris' incredible career and his insights on the music world today. It's worth reading. Click here for Part One if you missed yesterday's article. Today we focus on Part Two, which covers the Storm Thorgerson documentary Chris is producing and the various experiences he has had to date in capturing this historical production.
Now that this project is out of the bag, events are moving quite rapidly. The responses Chris and his co-producer Roddy have received has reached a fever pitch among the artist and music community. Therefore, we will have regular updates and some very exciting announcements in the next couple of weeks. - The Editors
Tim: The technology business has had a major impact on the music business. Today we have iPods and vPods and iPhones. It's estimated that mobile media is going to dwarf all over platforms in terms of consumer adoption and sustainability in the near future. What pressures do you see on the entertainment business? Is Hollywood today really the music business or is it just a distant cousin?
Chris: It's a really different form of entertainment. For musicians, TV and film are different ways to make money. But I think musicians probably have a better time riding the coattails of a movie or a TV show than the other way around, so it's a nice thing. That said, I think it's a different art form. I've done music for some movies and it was really fun to do, but it's a very different discipline than what I'm used to doing.
Tim: How do you feel about video and audio piracy? It must be hard enough to get money out of the record companies without having to worry about fans ripping you off.
Chris: I work with a couple of different companies called Bug Music, which is an administration company. They handle my publishing. Their role is to find various royalties that have accumulated in various bands. Sometimes they go out and find money because a song of mine got played in Sweden.
Tim: That's interesting.
Chris: There was a time a couple of years ago that I looked at my statement and saw they gave me credit for a ring tone. And so I looked at it and I was like, "Well, I don't have any songs that are ringtones." I then went on the internet and saw someone had created a ringtone out of a song from a band I wasn't even in anymore.
Tim: That's a great story.
Chris: It was. As a contemporary artist, it's important to have a company that's protecting your publishing in any way they can. You have to assume that people are probably out there trying to make money from you. It comes with the game.
Tim: Does the entertainment business have a lot of people with integrity?
Chris: Sure. That said, I mean I had to pursue legal action with Saturday Night Live roughly 10 years ago because they had ripped off a song of mine. It's like any other business. Some people have integrity and some don't.
Tim: Any thoughts before we get into Storm on the growth of the Hard Rock Café and the teardown of CBGB's?
Chris: I was really sad to see CBGB's go.
Tim: You played there a number of times.
Chris: Many times. A lot of people I know in New York said, "CBGB's died 10 years before it closed." There was a period around 1996-1997 when Brownie opened up on Avenue A. And when the Mercury Lounge opened up on Houston Street, it seemed like suddenly those places were booking all the music that used to go to CBGB's. I'm not sure why that happened. Then CBGB's T-shirt business took off, which gave the place a new life. Today you see people all over the world wearing CBGB T-shirts, so I guess that's a cottage industry that will continue. It had real cultural significance because it was one of the first places for punk and was just a great place to play in New York. I'm sad to see any good nightclub go in New York.
Tim: If you were to rank playing at a university vs. a nightclub vs. a larger venue or arena which do you prefer?
Chris: I prefer playing in clubs because of the intimacy of it. If the ceiling is low then the sound has more tightness to it. If you're playing into a vast space then the sound tends to dissipate.
Tim: Okay, let's talk about the documentary. How did it come about?
Chris: I have an old friend Dan Abbott an English guy who's been working with Storm for the past 5 or so years.
Tim: As a designer?
Chris: He does some design but mostly he helps with the execution of the work. Bob is the sort of guy who comes up with an idea and than commands an army of slaves to make it happen. I say that in a very affectionate way!!
Tim: LOL!! Storm's art is visual. He doesn't produce music, right?
Chris: Correct. He has a band give him an album. He listens to it until he comes up with an image and then he executes that image into real life. Then takes a picture of it. I was in London a year ago with my friend Dan and asked him what he was working on. He said Storm had an idea of a beach with a trap door in the sand. You lift up the trap door and there's stairs going down into the sand. I said to Dan, "Let me guess, you had to hire a carpenter to build a set of stairs with a trap door on top of it and then you had to drag it to a beach and then dug a hole in the sand an stuck the staircase in the sand and Storm took a picture of it." He said, "Yes, that's precisely what we did this weekend." I thought that was really funny!
Tim: I can only imagine.
Chris: So when I came back from London, I had lunch with a friend of mine Roddy Bogawa who's a film maker here in New York. I scored a movie of his a couple of years ago. I told him the story just because I thought it was funny and Roddy said, "That's amazing, I have to make a movie about this guy." Then I said, "Well, good for you!" So about 6 months later, Roddy called me and told me he'd raised some money to make the movie. He said, "I really want to make this movie and I want you to be a co-producer on it and I want you to do the music for it. You know these guys so you have to sell it so we can get the ball rolling on this."
Chris: Just like that?
Chris: That's really how we got started on it. Roddy and I were really intrigued as rock music fans. Roddy is much more of a visual artist than I am but we were certainly intrigued that Storm's been doing this for so long and using the same methods that he was using 40 years ago.
Tim: Very cool.
Chris: He's very reluctant to cheat with Photoshop and things like that. He's definitely got a sense of excess in the same way that Werner Herzog will say, "I'm going to make this huge boat and then I'm going to haul it over a mountain in the Amazon." Storm would say, "I'm going to have 800 iron beds going down a beach in the South of England." And then he would actually make it happen.
Tim: Judging by his work, it's quite believable.
Chris: We were also intrigued that Storm is working in this old school manner at a time when the technology is changing so. What he does is make album covers. He's got tons of work right now, but he's still making album covers in an era when album covers have become less and less relevant. He's done a lot of work for a contemporary band called the Mars Volta and the covers are great. I've thought, "How many people who bought the Mars Volta record even saw the album cover? I bet a lot of them could have downloaded it and never saw the visuals at all.
Tim: Certainly in this day and age.
Chris: Which raises the question of, "How important is the album cover?" When I was growing up it was huge. To this day I still go out and buy these albums and listen to the music and look at the covers like there's some sort of holy ruin, trying to figure out what's coming from the visuals and, "Wow does it play into what I'm listening to?"
Tim: I'm the same way. Regardless of the package it comes in, the music and CD or album covers influence each other.
Tim: Tell me about the work itself. Where are you with the project?
Chris: We're about half way there. We still have a bunch more shooting to do.
Tim:Can you give us an idea of what you have so far?
Chris: Right now it's been largely working with Storm. For example, it's him revisiting some of the sites of some of his more iconic covers. There's stuff of him at work in his office, there's footage of him giving a lecture in London. There's an interview with Alan Parsons and Graham Gouldman from 10CC.
Tim: Do you think it'll appeal be a niche audience or have mass appeal?
Chris: Well, Storm produced the Pink Floyd covers and they're the biggest selling rock band of all time. That's not a niche audience. Pink Floyd is the biggest band Storm's worked with and that's a part of his story, but that's not just what the movie is about.
Tim: What's the larger story?
Chris: We want it to be about all the work he's done and the ways he's done it and continues to do it. He's produced over 600 record covers. Check out his site. You could spend hours on it seeing all of the work. Every time I go into a record store I see one of his covers. He's really about the work. That's all that matters to him. He's very much into the artistic side.
Tim: Do the producers of the album give him ideas or brainstorm with him? Like share their vision for how to market the album?
Chris: He's written a couple of books where says that most of his relationships with record companies have been contentious at best.
Tim: Does he work with the artists?
Chris: Yes. Sometimes he brings the ideas to the bands. Sometimes with the initial conversation he'll throw out an idea and the band says, "Yeah, go for it." Then he executes it and then band may not like it. It's not an easy business. Artists are so possessive of their music. The cover of the CD or album is the literal visual translation of their work. There can be all kinds of conflicts that break out.
Tim: Right, fans just see it once it's done.
Chris: Exactly. I'm very interested in getting a sense of that process. I think how the collaboration takes place is very interesting to me.
Tim: Do you think you'll have interviews with record execs?
Chris: I think it would be illuminating and entertaining on some level!
Tim: LOL! How about other designers?
Chris: Yes for sure. We've already spoken with a number of designers who've been influenced by his work, so that will definitely be a part of it. We're interested in speaking to artists in other parts of the art world as well. Storm's done a lot of gallery shows. We've got some footage at shows in LA and in London, but I think that his work as stand-alone art work is amazing. We're already got Damian Hirst on tape.
Tim: Very cool!
Chris: It's going to be a very powerful story. Storm's touched a lot of people. I'll be able to share a lot more of what we're doing once we get closer to wrapping it up.
Tim: The music business is such a difficult business and is so often misunderstood. My younger daughter who's 10-years old is a singer. Recently she told me that she feels like so many other people want to do something important with their lives and all she wants to be is a singer. I told her, "Whether you're a surgeon or cab driver, or anyone else alive, people need music in their lives. It makes whatever it is they do more enjoyable. Everyone needs a song in their head."
Chris: Yes, their lives become richer. I think artists are important in the world.
Tim: What's it like working with Storm?
Chris: Well he's very funny. He's very effusive. He puts you to work immediately. We came over to shoot this lecture he was giving. So we came up to the offices and he immediately told Roddy and me that we needed 300 cabbage heads for the lecture. So we literally had to buy 300 heads of cabbages. He wanted give each person in the audience a head of cabbage and then have them hold it in front of their face so we could then take a picture of it.
Tim: I wish I was there.
Chris It was incredible seeing the entire audience as heads of cabbage! After the lecture they sold prints of that photograph!
Tim: Okay, give me some of the high points of your career as well as the low ones.
Chris: The high point for me is doing the work itself. I did a tour last year with a composer Rhys Chatham who composed multiple pieces for electric guitars. Back in the 1980s he wrote a piece called "Die Donnergotter" which is a 25 minute piece for guitars, bass and drums. I was in the alto section of the guitars, playing in different tunings. We played this piece every night for a week and it was one of the most exciting things I've ever done. The piece of music was so thrilling and it was amazing to be in the center of it.
Tim: I can imagine. What else comes to mind?
Chris: I think working with Pullman was a high point for me. I think in part because I was playing with 3 other really gifted and unique players. I always tell people to try to play with people who are better than you because they will push you to be better yourself. I've had lots of opportunities to play with really talented people and that's been really exciting. And the other end of that spectrum is that I've done a lot of solo work that I'm really proud of which was much scarier. I really had to push myself in ways that were new and definitely out of my comfort zone to do and that's really fulfilling too. So really the high points have been musical. I've the opportunity to go to lots of cool places that a lot of people don't get to go. My dad is always excited when I send him postcards from exotic places but then for all the cool places I've been I've also been in some scary, God-forsaken places as well. Situations where you walk in and go, "Oh my God, I had no idea what kind of sh-t hole I was walking into." I think any working musician has played in those places.
Tim: What advice would you give a budding musician?
Chris: Go for it if you're totally obsessed and just do it. Don't expect to get rich or famous from it and don't ever believe that you're inferior and that everyone else is more talented than you!!
Chris: Words to live by. Chris, thanks so much. I really appreciate it!
Chris: You're welcome, Tim. It was my pleasure!
About the artist:
CHRIS BROKAW was born and raised in and around New York City. After graduating from Oberlin college, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he continues to reside.
In 1990, he began recording and performing internationally with CODEINE, with whom he played drums and guitar on 2 records for SUB-POP. In 1992, he left that band to pursue songwriting, singing and guitar playing with COME, who recorded four albums for MATADOR and toured internationally over the course of 10 years.
Since 2002, Chris has recorded four solo albums: the instrumental "RED CITIES" (ATAVISTIC/KIMCHEE/12XU, 2002), the solo acoustic "WANDERING AS WATER"(NORMAL, 2004), the film score "I WAS BORN, BUT" (ATAVISTIC/12XU, 2004), and the rock/vocal "INCREDIBLE LOVE" (12XU/ROCK ACTION/ACUARELA, 2005).
He has performed on over 2 dozen other recordings, performing as a member of the following bands: THE WILLARD GRANT CONSPIRACY, THE NEW YEAR, PULLMAN, CONSONANT, and THE EMPTY HOUSE COOPERATIVE; as a guest on recordings by COBRA VERDE, MANTA RAY, ROSA CHANTSWELL, KARATE, and VIA TANIA; and as an accompanist to recordings and performances by STEVE WYNN, EVAN DANDO, THALIA ZEDEK, ALAN LICHT, TARA JANE O'NEIL, crime writer GEORGE PELECANOS, and RHYS CHATHAM.
Chris has scored and performed works with the KINO DANCE COMPANY (Boston, 2006) and the DAGDHA DANCE COMPANY (limerick, Ireland, 2005). he collaborated with playwright RINDE ECKERT and director ROBERT WOODRUFF on the award-winning new opera "HIGHWAY ULYSSES" (AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2003), which was named the Best Production of the Year by THE BOSTON GLOBE.
Chris scored LESLIE MCCLEAVE's dramatic feature film "ROAD" (2005), which won the award for Best Original Score at the BROOKLYN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. Chris' music has also been used extensively on NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO and ESPN.
Chris has performed throughout the US, Canada, Europe, the UK, Russia and Australia. in addition to regularly playing solo shows, he has been touring and performing in 2007 in collaboration with THURSTON MOORE (in a full band that is a side project from Moore's work with SONIC YOUTH), TWO DOLLAR GUITAR (TIM FOLJAHN and STEVE SHELLEY), ELEVENTH DREAM DAY, DAVE DERBY, and KAHOOTS.
Several other highlights of Chris' career include playing lead guitar for CONSONANT, a band led by CLIFFE CONLEY of MISSION OF BURMA, and playing drums for THE NEW YEAR. (ex-BEDHEADS). Backing JOHHNY DEPP in a compilation CD of Jack Kerouac readings by various artists called "KICKS, JOY, DARKNESS" (RCD label). Playing with BOB MOULD at a Philharmonic Hall benefit concert in Lincoln Center last year saluting Bob Dylan's music. Chris solo CD "Incredible Love" was named the 2005 Record of the Year by Time Out New York, and that particular song in addition to being used on a "Friday Night Lights" show is included in a compilation CD of "Friday Night Lights" music.
Chris has been pursuing several new projects in 2007, including a new band called DIRT MUSIC with HUGO RACE (ex-BAD SEEDS) and CHRIS ECKMAN (ex-WALKABOUTS), another new band called FFLSHLGHTS with DOUG MCCOMBS and ELLIOT DICKS, and an album of pre-WWII blues songs with GEOFF FARINA (ex-KARATE).