Words & interview
The music documentarians discuss piecing together a history of the LES scene which birthed LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
In mid-2017, journalist Lizzy Goodman wrote perhaps the ultimate tome of the early-00s indie rock renaissance, Meet Me in the Bathroom. A raucous, ultra-comprehensive exploration of the bands, clubs, and promoters which made up New York at the turn of the century.
Five years on, Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern, veterans of documentary films on Blur (No Distance Left to Run) and LCD Soundsystem (Shut Up and Play the Hits), have adapted that story for the big screen. The pair hopped on Skype to discuss condensing a 600-page book into a 100-minute feature, the challenges in crafting an archive-based documentary, and grappling with rock’s propensity for mythology.
What brought you onto Meet Me in the Bathroom?
Dylan Southern: A friend gave me the galley for the book, and didn’t stop reading it for about five hours. I love the format of oral history, the Rashomon quality where everyone’s talking about the same event from different angles with the truth somewhere in the middle. Yes, it’s a music story, but it takes place at such a specific time in such a specific place when everything was about to change – technologically, politically, culturally – and people didn’t necessarily know that.
We’ve made a couple of music docs before that were pure music docs, and I liked the fact that this gave us a chance to make a time capsule. We knew we could never go into the forensic detail of a 600-page book, but what we could do was give people the time and feeling of that place.
Why a film and not a TV series?
DS: We had pitched it as a four-part TV series, but it might’ve been the wrong time. Before there was precedent, people were going “well, it’s quite expensive for a four-part TV series on a niche scene.” So, we started thinking that, if we picked the right parts of the book, we could instead create a sort of companion piece.
What most drove the decision to focus on The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem?
Will Lovelace: For us, the first part of the book, which we cover, was the most exciting.
DS: As we examined the stories of each artist, we looked at the ones whose narratives chimed with the notion of coming-of-age; individual examples which all took place in the same city around the same time. Karen O, a shy girl who moves to a big city and creates this new identity that threatens to consume her; classic coming-of-age. James Murphy, though he’s doing it ten-to-fifteen years late, it’s still his moment coming-of-age. We wanted to find some strong contrasting arcs; Interpol and The Strokes have a tortoise-and-hare situation with their respective rises. These four being the most popular bands from that era may be a part of it, but they also allowed us to present the depth of things that were happening in the city.
You went into production when COVID hit. How did the pandemic alter your initial plans?
WL: We never wanted to make a movie with talking heads. The intention was to use mostly archive augmented by shooting footage of contemporary New York to show what those areas look like now. COVID stopped that. What it did help, in a weird way, was it had people like us, people with boxes of tapes and photographs and interviews, with more time on their hands to search archive out. It also gave us time. Weeks sat in front of our computers on the Internet, looking at old message boards, trying to read every interview that had happened with every band featured in the film.
DS: We picked up enough detective skills that we could work for Bellingcat. We’d see a photograph and, in the corner, there’d be a journalist’s minidisc player. “Let’s call up the photographer, see if they can get the journalist’s name, if they’ve still got their minidiscs and can send them over.”
The archive was coming in right until the eleventh hour. We didn’t even know footage of the first ever LCD show existed until about two weeks before we had to lock the picture. You’d get panics that you wouldn’t be able to tell this part of the story like you planned, but then somebody would find a suitcase full of gold at the last minute. It was a very different way of making a film to our previous ones.
Something I just realised when I was putting together my questions, there were no journalists in the narration parts. Was that a deliberate decision?
WL: Definitely. We just wanted it to be the story of these artists from these artists. You hear journalists asking questions, but it wasn’t people commenting on the scene.
DS: One of the things we were really interested in was the notion of mythology in music. Part of why we open on a Walt Whitman poem montaging these romanticised icons from New York was that they act as a beacon call drawing artists to the city. Then the meat of the film shows the reality of that mythology, these messy complex people struggling through. Bookending with the poem reprise was a tongue-in-cheek way of asking “will these bands become the same as the ones we saw in the beginning? Or has the world changed so much in the intervening years, particularly in how we consume music, that it’s the last time a scene may emerge organically from a singular place?”
The film’s a time capsule of this scene, but it’s also a time capsule of New York City’s evolution in the early-00s. How difficult was it to balance the story of, say, 9/11 without trivialising?
DS: It was tough. The aim was to show that these specific events impacted personally upon the lives of these musicians, otherwise it would be insensitive; it couldn’t just be there because it was there. So, when we got the footage of Paul [Banks] on the streets picking up leaflets and going to give blood, or when we found the Kimya Dawson performance shortly after 9/11… There’s something so honest about them, it became necessary to include.
This scene was happening in New York at a time where the world’s eyes were locked there for another reason. We’re telling the story of these bands and we found it really interesting to see what that historical event meant to a specific artistic community. The story that runs for three years, but we were at pains to make sure that traumatic events didn’t just happen and then stop. We go to the anniversary of it, that parking lot show in Brooklyn, and the reverberations of 9/11 are still there.
Published 9 Mar 2023
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