Culture  Doing it yourself and doing it well

Documentary chronicles three of Montreal’s “fiercely independant record labels”

Filmmaker Kenneth Thomas’ documentary Blood, Sweat, and Vinyl: DIY in the 21st Century charts a small portion of Montreal’s rich artistic heritage. The film focuses on the experiences of three fiercely independent record labels, one of which, Constellation Records, has been a stalwart of the Montreal music scene since it was founded in 1997. Many of Constellation’s bands, such as Godspeed You!, Black Emperor, and The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, are now influential names with legions of loyal fans worldwide. I met up with Kenneth Thomas to find out more about the documentary before it screens at La Sala Rossa next Monday, November 21. 

The McGill Daily: Why did you decide to make the film?

Kenneth Thomas: Well I’m a big fan of this music first and foremost. A lot of what I listen to can be connected to three record labels: Hydra Head, Neurot Recordings, and Constellation Records. When I went to the shows of these labels’ bands, I noticed that a lot of the same people showed up, so I started looking for connections between the labels. I found that each of the labels had their own aesthetic and vibe. To me, that is an example of a DIY or punk attitude: the attitude of wanting to do everything yourself and not really caring about major labels or top-forty radio or anything like that. With these labels, I feel that you get more than just the music, you get an overall aesthetic because these bands and these labels value the visual art, which is one reason why it is so great to buy their stuff on vinyl – because it’s not just an album with a picture of the band on the front cover but it’s incredible artwork that one of their friends made or someone who works at the label made. A lot of thought goes into both the music and the presentation of the music, and I, like a lot of fans, really value that.

MD: Presumably, on some level, you also felt that there was a story there that needed to be told?

KT: For sure. In the early 2000s, there were a lot of documentaries about punk rock, and about the Ramones and bands like that, but no one was talking about how those ideas and those attitudes translated into the present. I can’t stand it when people say there is no good music today, or that the punk rock movement is dead, because it’s evolved, and is still very much alive, just being done differently. So I wanted to create something that showed that punk rock and DIY ideals are still alive, and these people are doing it this way today. That was my original intention, and it was spurred on by the fact that, while people knew about these bands, no one was documenting the fact that these bands were doing something special and continuing the DIY tradition.

MD: And you think those ideals are important?

KT: Well, yeah, and the way I filmed this was pretty much in line with the way the bands operate. The film was self-financed – I did it myself because I felt it needed to be done. I never had aspirations to sell this to MTV or VH1. I was making this for the fans, and for people who would have an open mind to discovering new music, and I feel that that is in line with the spirit of punk rock that these bands are continuing, because their primary goal isn’t massive financial gain or massive popularity. They are fully dedicated to the idea of creating and putting out a vision that is uniquely theirs, and I wanted to show that. I don’t think I can do justice to their art or visuals, but I wanted to give people an insight as to what they could expect at a show.

MD: How did you discover these bands and labels in the first place?

KT: Well I used to live in Seattle in the late 1990s, and I had two friends who lived on an island, and I visited them. So I was in this secluded forest, inside a trailer, and my friends put on the first Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] album, and the music and the setting were just so beautiful that I couldn’t concentrate on conversation and I remember thinking ‘when was the last time I heard music so powerful that I had to stop and listen to it?’ I couldn’t just have it on in the background. Once I’d discovered Godspeed I did some research, and discovered this label called Constellation Records, and I kept digging and I discovered another band called Hangedup and then it was just a domino effect.

MD: When you were filming the documentary, what did you learn about the world of independent music that you didn’t know before?

KT: Well, you would think that independent labels would really suffer from downloading, and it has made it harder for everybody in the music world, but I think that the independent labels are a little more connected with their fans than the majors are. The independent labels are unlike the majors because they know their fans, and they know that their fans value actually having a physical item, and so will buy the vinyl. It will always be a struggle to be an independent label, but I found that they were not as affected by the whole downloading thing as I had thought they would be. I think that is because the people who run the labels are really big fans of the music they put out, which makes a real difference in terms of how they sell their music, and the amount of time they put into physical releases in terms of artwork, which is something I think major labels just don’t get in the same way.

MD: What were the biggest challenges for you making this film?

KT: Well, it took over five years to make because I self-financed the film. I couldn’t take time off work to make it, but my workplace was very supportive. I’m a freelance filmmaker and videographer, so I shoot and edit documentaries for a living, which means I had access to equipment. So when Silver Mount Zion was in town, I could borrow two extra cameras and do a three camera shoot. The biggest problem, though, and it was more of a challenge than a problem, was editing. I had over eighty hours of footage, and editing that down to ninety minutes was a big challenge. If I put in everything that I thought was great, this film would be ten hours!

MD: How would you persuade someone who isn’t that familiar with these labels to come to the screening and discussion?

KT: Well, like I said earlier, I remember that when I heard Godspeed for the first time it totally blew my mind. So for those people who haven’t heard of these bands or labels, but who are open to discovering a new kind of music and a new way of thinking about music, I would say they should come to the screening because they will see a snippet of independent bands that are making wonderful music that can’t be easily defined and that affects a lot of people mentally, musically, and emotionally. If they can just get a snippet of that then maybe they will enjoy the discussion, ask about where they can find out more, and then leave and find it themselves. Come with an open mind for new music and you’ll dig it!