Recently, I was given the opportunity by Nokia Music and the Sundance Channel to travel with a small crew and explore the music scenes in two American cities. Nineteen days with two friends -- my cinematographer Isaac Bauman and my producer Chris Black -- and a local sound person, spent in intimate communities in two dissimilar locations. Because the crew was so lean, I kept the filming process very open. The city and the people of the city dictated where our camera was going to next. For us, it was all about immersion -- not being afraid to go anywhere, but at the same time, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
I picked Portland and New Orleans because I'd never been to either city and from everything I'd heard and seen, the two felt vastly different from each other -- culturally, musically, and aesthetically. Having never been to either city, there was nothing to feel jaded about -- everything our lens was seeing, I was seeing for the first time. So here's what I gathered...
Portland is a foggy, cloudy, misty neverland. I mean that in the most genuine way. It's a place where people can stay young forever (or at least, for longer) and make music with their friends for their friends. No one is defined by their job the way you'd see in a city like Los Angeles or New York. Artists manage to make a living on their own schedules -- fixing mopeds, pushing coffee carts -- and make music and play shows often. In Portland, more than anywhere else, 30 is the new 20.
The landscape is dreamy. In St. John's, a North Portland neighborhood, you're surrounded by mountains covered with an endless sprawl of majestic green and yellow trees. It's Twin Peaks. It rains often and unannounced. The sun comes out for 5 minutes at a time, blue skies abound and before you know it, you look up to a sea of gray. It's the perfect light for filmmaking.
We quickly saw that the landscape, the weather, and the mood informed the music these artists were making. They spend plenty of time indoors in affordable warehouse spaces as rain beats on the windows. The soundscapes they create are ethereal -- dreamy and distorted. Catchy pop melodies layered, hiding underneath a distorted nastiness. They use vintage effects units and contemporary electronic equipment to make a blend of the old and new.
Most people are transplants -- from the Pacific Northwest, from California, from the East Coast. Because of this, the culture feels eclectic. The musicians don't want to belong to any particular genre or sub-genre (though they may be grouped by similarities). Everyone is trying to stand on their own, but at the same time, the community is tight-knit. The audience at shows is comprised mostly of other artists playing that same venue. Everyone is standing or sitting down. No dancing, but it's a beautiful thing... you get the sense that on the base level, all that matters is putting on a good show for your peers.
While the artists we found seemed to be having a lot of fun, they also took their art very seriously. There was a lot of "We don't want to be commercial. We don't want our music used to sell a product." It took a lot of coaxing and explanation. To a degree, we were the enemy -- the embodiment of American corporate and monied interests, which seemed weird to me because in my mind, we're just three kids trying to make art too. As a filmmaker, I'm always open to collaboration with other artists, and while I was frustrated, I couldn't help but respect the integrity of their sentiments. Because fuck corporations... right?* It's nice to see someone stand their ground in the face of "selling out" -- which is hardly this documentary's purpose, but you get the idea.
So the doc started to evolve. The piece took a course of its own. It became clear that the best way to represent Portland is through a montage of the sights and sounds -- a mood piece -- floaty, dreamy, surreal, which is how the music and the city make you feel. We focused a good deal on the landscape and the atmosphere of the city -- cameras floating and twirling toward roadside forests, flying above the city and the rural landscapes. In post, our editor, Leila Sarraf, engineered an abstract soundscape that mirrored the music. By the end, I want people to feel the raininess, the cloudiness, the general atmosphere of Portland, which is all manifested in the music these kids are making.
A week after landing in Portland, we took off to New Orleans. Immediately, we were in a world that was Portland's polar opposite.
The New Orleans documentary's subject is bounce music. Finally, a genre. People want to be in a genre!
From the get-go, I was surprised to find how deeply seeded bounce music is in the fabric of New Orleans' culture. There was not a single person we spoke to that didn't know what bounce music is, from the old white men sitting outside of the fancy creole-fusion restaurants, to the kids in the projects. Everyone was about "that beat."
Bounce music has its roots planted in the city's party scene over the last thirty years. The people are proud to announce that it was birthed in New Orleans, Louisiana, but because the genre is largely sample heavy, it hasn't really made it out of the city. It's not commercially viable. To be successful, artists like Lil' Wayne and Juvenile and Master P moved away from it. Even now, you can only really get bounce from the bootleggers selling tapes out the back of SUV's and the people who bootleg the bootleggers. It's in the underground for real, and yet, it's everywhere you turn in the city. In the clubs, the strip clubs, bumping from cars stopped at red lights. They play the bounce beat under practically every song on the radio. "You heard Adele - 'Rolling in the Deep?' It's an alright song... You put that beat under it... ooooooh." Immediate banger. Currently, with the rise of "sissy bounce," an off-shoot of bounce music from gay rappers like Nicky Da B and Big Freedia, there's a rebirth of bounce happening in the city. It's incredible to see gay rappers in hip-hop, a traditionally homophobic industry, trying to bring the genre to a global audience.
Naturally, the filmmaking process took on an entirely new approach. We were in a party scene, and I mean P-A-R-T-Y scene. We loosened up. We had some drinks. Whereas the scene we found in Portland involved standing and listening to music in a very casual way, bounce shows are about losing control of your body and shaking everything you got. Everyone seemed super comfortable in their own skin. Girls and guys wanted to dance and perform for the camera. As soon as we hit record in interviews, people opened up and spilled their guts.
The first thing we did was strip down the camera (a Canon C300) to nothing but a camera body and a lens. The small camera enabled our cinematographer to go nuts with movement. Isaac has no fear when a camera's in his hand -- hanging out the car in the lower 9th ward, riding in a boat with the camera less than inch away from the swamp water at 60 mph. We stayed on the ground -- no floating cameras, no helicopter shots. We used our zoom lens liberally, getting closer to our subjects to create something more visceral and real. We were welcomed by the scene. By the end of it we'd been to every bounce club in the city and seen more ass shaking than you've seen in a lifetime.
The attitude in the scene is unlike that of Portland as well. New Orleans has a hustler's mentality. The city and the scene is in your face -- the rappers have open beefs, drama. Competition is high. The scene isn't exactly about making music for your friends. It's about beating them and coming out on top.
So which city did I like more? It's tough to beat New Orleans... put it in the running for one of the best cities on Earth. But that's not to say I didn't love Portland as well. Making two very different documentaries, both in style and content, in a compressed amount of time was a great exercise and I'm entirely grateful for the opportunity. Overall, I think there was one similarity. In both cities, there's an effort to blend the sounds of the old and the new: Portland using vintage units to create a modern sound, New Orleans sampling the same beats from the late '80s to create sissy bounce. There's something cyclical about these scenes. The youth revisits the past and makes it their own.
* Except for Nokia and the Sundance Channel