Over some 30 years, Smart Studios, founded by Garbage members Butch Vig and Steve Marker, helped changed the landscape of music. Six years after it closed, director Wendy Schneider has brought the story of the studio to the big screen with her film The Smart Studios Story. At its premiere at SXSW, Larry talked to Wendy about her film and the journey that’s taken the music documentary to this year’s festival in Texas.
Wendy, thank you very much for joining us today.
It’s lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.
It’s really exciting that this movie is getting to premiere at SXSW, as I believe you said in our Q&A and I’m sure that you’ve been telling everyone, there’s no better place to show this film. What does it mean for you, to have it premiering here?
To be able to have the community of SXSW welcoming this film changes the course of the films life. It’s started out as…this is a very local film, but it’s a very universal story that we’re telling about independent music over the last 30 years. The excitement that people have down here around music, especially independent music, is really special for us. There is not a better home for the world premiere.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s been a long road for you to get here, so there must be relief in that as well. [Laughs]
Yeah, there’s a lot of the relief after six years of working in isolation, essentially, with a film that’s so DIY and was bare-bones budget. Everything was done in Madison, all the editing, all the posters, except for the sound mixing. But to be able to start to transition out of the cave of isolation that I’ve been in, and talk to people about the film, have people see and screen the film, you know, world premiere the film, being to talk about what’s going to happen in the next year with the film, is like a dream come true.
What are the next steps for the film beyond here? Can you already see the life it’s going to have?
We can’t really, because there’s so many different ways now to platform out a film. There’s a learning curve for me, but Carrie Brown our producer is pretty experience with releasing films so what has been really helpful and special about being down in SXSW is that we can meet with people face to face and get a sense of what their ideas are for a film like this, we can fine-tune our ideas for a film like this, and we can talk “strategically” about what’s going to happen with the movie. It’s exciting.
Let’s talk about the movie. I’d like to start with the aesthetics that you used for the film. There’s this feeling, and Butch used the phrase “time capsule”, for the film, which I love. You’re not only transported with the music but visually, I felt like I was watching MTV in the 1990s, all that was missing was Kurt Loder doing the narration. Was that a concerted decision to give it that feel of music documentaries from that period?
Well, my production background comes out of the ‘80s and ‘90s so I think some of that aesthetic just has not evolved much beyond those decades. That’s one reason why it looks the way it does. I have a style that is, when the music movies, make the visual move, you know, really matching and connecting the feel and energy of the music with what’s happening visually.
That’s my background, that started in 1983. I wanted to also keep the experience of watching the film as tangible as possible, so if I could bring the archives into the experience as much as I could, using what I was doing, this technique I came up with called “photo animations”, was going to bring people into the history a little bit more than just scanning through the documents slowing moving across the screen.
The archives that came in early on were very low-fi and I knew that we didn’t have the budget, or really the means or technology to make those archives look much different than they did, than they do. So I really signed off on letting the film be exactly what is was right out of the gate, and not trying to make it fit stylistically into some other template that people were going to experience. I just really kept things as cohesive as I could, aesthetically.
No expansive landscape shots to cut in between a rolling guitar background, your just here to tell the story. And you do it brilliantly, and I really like the decision to not just focus on The Smart Studios but pinpoint where it fits in the modern vernacular of music. It’s the start, middle and end of the studio, but it’s also the start, middle and end of an important period of rock music, and music in general. You interviewed a lot of people to feature in the film, do you have any stand out moments as a music fan, getting down to sit down and interview them, or have you been in the industry that long that’s it’s, “oh, you know, they’re just friends” [laughs].
No, not at all, because I mean, I don’t know Dave Grohl, and I don’t know Billy Corgan, you know and Chris Walla I met a little bit when I was at the studio. You know, for me, Dan Covinsky from Decroitzin… , was meeting this iconic, very raw, very real rock and roller from the ‘80s who I had no relationship with. I did not listen to Decroitzin but I knew that everybody else did. He was somebody who was very local, you know, he was in Madison so he still played out, he was accessible, but I was still like “oh, that’s Dan from Decroitzin”, you know? I was sort of in awe of him, the music was incredible. The music, before making the film, I hadn’t listened to it before. The records are fantastic and I really like the band but that was an exciting moment for me.
Everyone that I interviewed blew me away with how chill they were, you know. You’re talking about this period of time and that’s where I think I had a fortunate experience in making the film and doing the interviews. I was genuinely curious about how they felt about this period of music, and because they lived it, how they answered these questions, was really from the heart. Everyone in the film is really speaking from the heart because they’re talking about a period of time, or music, or an experience that was really dear to them. T
hey wouldn’t have agreed to do the interviews had it been any different. The other person, I think, that really aligned me with the decision to make this documentary, or how significant this documentary had the potential of being, was Bill Corgan. The dimension that he gave the story that I was still trying to piece together and figure out in my own head, really transported me. I felt that after talking with him. Surely, Manson as well, an amazing interview. The way that they are able to articulate and encapsulate certain emotions or ideas around Smart and the history.
I could listen to Billy O’Shelley talk for hours. I’ve been to a one-on-one Q&A with Billy Corgan and nobody wanted to leave. He’s just an incredible wordsmith, you know?
Yeah. Absolutely and I can get long-winded about things I’m passionate about but I’m no Billy Corgan. When you piece together the strength and eloquence of everybody in this film it’s a film that I find myself leaning into when I’m watching it now. There’s a real power to the story that is very accessible to the audience. I didn’t get very technical with the film, I didn’t try to make an argument for digital versus analogue recording, I didn’t want to focus on the studio’s death, I didn’t want the film to be a lament – that’s just not what the music is about.
There’s that argument that music is eternal, so it never has died and that people will continue to discover music from this period and from this studio. There’s been a string of documentaries in the last decade talking about great studios. Dave Grohl did a great one, had he already done that when you sat down with him?
It’s funny, when it takes you this long to make films a lot of other films come and go in between. I think that he started…Sound City…it might have been in the works when I started the Smart film but I only knew of it a couple of years into the Smart film. So I wasn’t aware of it when I started the Smart film.
Do you hope that with documentaries like yours that the resurgence of interest and in this style of making music that it might encourage people around the world and the younger generation to go ‘Oh, I might like to make music like that’?
I think that people are already making music in the ways that Butch and Steve started making music. They started in a basement and they just recorded and recorded and recorded and then slowly the access that they wanted was not within their reach. They wanted a space that was bigger to provide more of an environment for recording and you get to a certain point where you make enough good records where you think “hmm can we take it more seriously”? When I moved my studio from the basement to a warehouse, I didn’t do it because I was busting at the seams with bands wanting to record for me.
I had a nice roster but that move was really challenging and I did it by myself. My point is that when I was with my studio I wanted to take it to that level. I think that’s what happened with Butch and Steve and that’s what happens with young recording artists. It’s just not enough. Your basement is not enough and it evolves from there. I don’t think Smart will spark anything that has not already been sparked by more technology being available for people to go “I’m gonna do this but I don’t have to know how to solder to do this, I don’t have to know about impedance and resistance to do this,. I can actually go buy something and start recording songs”. It’s different, but it’s real.
What excites you about music today?
I’m excited by the same things in music today that I’ve always been excited by. I’m moved by music. I like making music. I like listening to music. I’m always going to gravitate towards tracks that feel truthful whether they are punk-rock or pop. Something that speaks to something, an idea or a sentiment or an experience that I relate to. I love stuff that’s recorded brilliantly. I was at a record store listening to a band – just a punk-rock 45 coming through the speakers – and that’s enjoyable but in a different way. I’m moved in the same way I’ve always been with music. I think it’s just part of my spirit.
This is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, are you going to see a bit of music while you’re here?
I do. It would be really nice to see a bit of music while I’m at SXSW. I’ve been here for a few days and we came at the tail-end of Interactive so it really felt like you were in Interactive. This was my first time at SXSW and I was trying to get a sense [at first] for the vibe of the crowd here and I couldn’t – but today that really changed. There’s a lot more musicians.
A lot of denim
Yeah [laughs] there’s music around, you know. Our friend Freedy Johnston is playing at the afterparty tonight at the Fire House. We don’t have anything on the calendar for tomorrow so I’m sure we’ll take in some music. Friday we have another screening of the film and a panel – but then Friday night we’re around. Yeah we’re excited.
Well I hope you get to discover something new and I’m sure screenings will all go really well, and your Kickstarter fans, they’ll be some of them attending tonight?
I know of one, no, four Kickstarter fans who’ll be attending tonight. [There were] more at the mid-West and the LA screening. Once I finished Kickstarter I had 800 people that gave a shit about the film and that really propelled me forward. I felt a sense of responsibility – I had 800 investors and really wanted to finish on behalf of that effort they had made. I’m really glad we are where we are.
Thanks for your time and congratulations on the film.
Find more information on The Smart Studios Story and other screenings at SXSW here.