From the early ’80s to the mid-’90s, three UK noise bands defied the construct of popular music. Through distorted guitar chords and digitized reverb, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins and The Jesus & Mary Chain built sophisticated pop songs that were loud and romantic, framing the infrastructure for what would later be dubbed “shoegaze.” Eric Green, a New York filmmaker who documents the origins of the genre in his latest film, Beautiful Noise, has obsessed over this style of music for years. But shoegaze, a term from the ’80s that describes the band’s detached nature during live performance, was a term he consciously avoided. “If you look up the history of the genre,” explains Green over the phone from Los Angeles, “a lot of the bands in the film had been playing for years and years before that phrase had been coined. I can understand why people would be apprehensive about it. People don’t like to be pigeonholed.”
In Beautful Noise, Green’s interviews with press shy musicians like Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine], Robin Guthrie [Cocteau Twins] and Jim Reid [The Jesus & Mary Chain], reveal these criticisms of the shoegaze movement, and capture their take on the rise, fall, and resurgence of the genre’s sound in contemporary indie rock. Though Green focuses most of the film on his three anchor bands, figures from ’90s shoegazers Slowdive, Medicine and Lush, and interviews with Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, and Trent Reznor, emphasize the influence of the ’80s sound on their own style of music. With upcoming screenings in LA, Lincoln Center in New York and Way Out West Fest in Sweden, we spoke with Green about the 10-year process behind Beautiful Noise, how the media destroyed the shoegaze movement, and why some bands should stop being like Bowie and start being themselves.
With books and films on the origins of shoegaze few and far between, was this the impetus behind making the film?
Honestly, I made this film as a fan, mostly for fans. When me and my wife Sarah [Ogletree], who is the producer and editor, set out to make this movie, we wanted it to be a movie that we would want to see. There were certain choices in the film that we made, that I like to see in documentaries. We knew, being a music documentary, it would have to have lots of music. And for us, it was important that the artists were heard in their own words, so to speak, and not over contextualize them to try and make them seem like they’re saying something different than what they’re saying.
I think that because you’re a fan of the bands you feature, it makes the film more meaningful. With that being said, what does shoegaze mean to you?
I grew up in New York and came into the music late, maybe a couple of years after it had already happened. I didn’t really know the baggage that came with the word, per se. I was never much of a reader of the music magazines. I would read a few of them, but if I was in a record shop, I was hunting down records. The phrase itself started out as an insult. It was basically saying, ‘Oh, these people aren’t engaging,’ which to me couldn’t be further from the truth. If a band is playing earth-shattering noise, who cares if they’re jumping down on stage or not? You’re at a concert to hear beautiful music. You’re not necessarily there to watch some performance. Some people can pull that off. I love David Bowie and obviously he perfected an art form of making his stage performance a spectacle and made it as amazing as the music. But, to me, few artists can really pull that off.
You mentioned that the phrase “shoegaze” is considered an insult to some of the artists in the film. Were there any artists you interviewed who asked you to call “shoegaze” something different, or asked you not to use the phrase?
It was choice early on to not use the “shoegaze” phrase. It just seemed like it would be a block moving forward with some artists, and why blow an interview because of a word? But I guess it was used to describe [British indie rock band] Moose. I remember reading somewhere that [jazz musician] Ornette Coleman didn’t like the term “free jazz,” even though he had a record called Free Jazz. It’s an artist thing. You don’t want to be seen as just this, or just that. For years I didn’t have a word to call the genre. I started slowly collecting all these different records by these bands and never heard the word before. It’s like, how much do some of the bands really sound like each other? There’s a few common connections. In our movie, though, we capture a time period where these groups were grouped together. A lot of these bands were friends with each other. A lot of them were on the same label and there were a few common techniques.
What do you think contributed to the disappearance of shoegaze? And what do you owe to the resurgence of the sound over the past few years?
I think there were a couple of different factors. I don’t believe in absolutes, but when we’re thinking about bands like Slowdive, they got to the point where they were getting horrible reviews and write-ups from the press. They were ultimately dropped by Creation [Records]. But then they regrouped, started a new band and were well-received and signed to [record label] 4AD. They all have successful solo careers now and have ultimately reformed. But at the time, how do make it as a band if you’re getting bad press, your record label is not behind you, and you’re not making money? You can probably think of some meme’s in your head when I say this, but there are bands that people write horrible things about in the press, but if they’re selling millions of records, they’re not going anywhere. It’s almost like, by writing about them, they [journalists] are perpetuating those bands in a way. If something is selling, it’s going to go on. If something isn’t selling that well, the road is a bit harder.
A reason why I think the music has resurged is because every good music has its day. Whether it’s the day it resides in or 20 years later, if it’s good, it will stand the test of time. What is even truer about that statement today is the internet. People can type in any one of these songs, albums, band names and easily listen to their records instantaneously. So eventually, it just found its audience again, be it not a paying audience, but how else can you explain thousands of people watching Slowdive at Primavera Sound? Ultimately, the angle of all this is that I wanted to put a spotlight on what I feel are really groundbreaking bands who put out amazing works of art that should be listened to and enjoyed and not be buried in time.
The idea for Beautiful Noise came to you 10 years ago. What was the process like from the beginning stages of the film to the finished project?I thought of the idea in fall of 2004 and started getting serious about it in spring 2005. I started doing interviews and writing people; calling people. I didn’t really know anybody in this circle of people and just kind of made my way through. I told everyone what my intentions were with the film and managed to get most of the people we wanted interviewed in the film. It wasn’t a full-time project but a nights-and-weekends-project that took about a year to edit. It went through subsequent cuts and it was around the end of 2008, early 2009, when we were shopping it around and then world economy collapsed. The DVD market had collapsed as well, which was the lifeline for many independent films. People don’t tend to go to theaters to see independent films, they find them on DVD. With the sales aspect of DVD’s dropping, there were people who were hesitant to back a movie like this, which is arguably a niche movie.
Then I read about Kickstarter. I looked on the site and didn’t see a lot of big-ticket items on the website at the time and just thought, ‘Maybe this is going to have to wait a little bit.’ I just saw different projects on there that wanted a few grand [in donations]. Music rights and video rights and licensing still takes a lot of money, even in the limited regard that we wanted it for our film. So in 2012, we launched the Kickstarter campaign and we were successful. It’s been quite a ride.
Out of everyone in the film interviewed, who was your favorite person to talk with?
I loved talking to everyone, really. Some people I’ve stayed in touch with and have become dear friends with, and some people were just wonderful to interview. Obviously, Kevin Shields sticks out. It was a long interview and we talked about a whole range of topics; some non-music related. Robert Smith was amazing and Jim Reid was a really warm interview. I liked a lot of the tones of some of the interviews. They were very thoughtful. We had to be really incisive with who we interviewed and when we interviewed them, because of time. On one day we interviewed [former Jesus & Mary Chain guitarist] Bobby Gillespie at 9 AM, and then we took a train to see Robert Smith. A lot of interviews happened all in one day.
I think that speaks a lot about you as an interviewer, that you were able to conduct conversations with musicians who don’t grant many interviews to the press.
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. We made a fan movie; there are no “gotcha” questions. We weren’t looking to corner anyone with anything, or make a TMZ-like movie where we wanted to talk about who dated who or people’s drug habits, or shoehorn-in on some political statement about the bands. The music rose above that. The music is user-friendly. You come into it with who you are. Like Robin Guthrie says in the opening minutes of the movie: ‘It’s impressionistic music. You take from it what you want.’
That’s one of the beautiful things about a lot of the music that these bands made: it wasn’t clothes that you had to wear in order to enjoy this music, or an attitude that you had to have or a certain belief system. It’s probably one of the most diplomatic genres, if you will, in music, because it touches so many different people and so many different feelings.