As long as musicians make interesting music, filmmakers are going to make interesting music videos. Sure, it's a quick argument otherwise. The medium's progenitor, MTV, has withered into a corporate shell, firing into the dark for the next Real World and packing cuts from their few rotating videos in the after-school, emo-'n'-bling staple, TRL. It's been a long, pathetic decline from the days when the network would proudly premiere new videos from bands like Sonic Youth, New Order and Nirvana, and troll the indie underground with its revered 120 Minutes show. With rare exceptions, mainstream music-video culture has grown positively "Toxic." This is no surprise. Local filmmaker Matt McCormick sums up the mainstream music-video market simply: "It has more to do with the label, the PR, than it does the quality of video."
Yet the medium thrives, especially in Portland. McCormick's cracked the MTV behemoth twice, most recently this past May with his video for the Shins' "Australia." (The first was for 2003's "Past and Pending" by the same band.) It was a bit of a coup, but he's not alone in Portland's video major league. Eric Johnson—who will be showing his video for M. Ward's "Chinese Translation" at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week—has cracked MTV2, as has Whitey McConnaughy. Lance Bangs has been in the music-video game since 1993, with a full credit list of "old" MTV staples. Along with them, these auteurs brought local bands like Panther, Sleater-Kinney, the Thermals and M. Ward into national rotation.
Here's the thing, though. These days—especially in DIY Portland—musicians and filmmakers no longer have to "crack" anything. It's nice when it happens, especially given that our locals have budgets a fraction of the size of major label operations' (Eric Johnson's "Chinese Translation" video cost roughly $1,500, whereas most major-label work has a price tag in the six-figure range, frequently breaking a million dollars). But the video medium's home has shifted online, and it's a total free-for-all. Monster tastemaker sites like Pitchfork and Spinner.com post videos on a regular basis that wouldn't be touched by MTV without a dollar-fueled steamroller of hype. But, more importantly, there are social media sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Google Video, which are (almost) totally open forums where anybody can post a music video, pulling the few remaining TV-watching video fans onto the Internet. "The state of music videos is split at the moment," says Eric Johnson. "You have amazing, experimental, interesting stuff on one side, and mainstream junk on the other. It's such a great time though, as the rules, laws and former gatekeepers—MTV, etc.—of music videos are changing dramatically. Great work can be done inexpensively, and has an equal chance of being seen as a big-budget video does."
Pick a local band and search: It's almost certain they've released a video, from Argumentix's (a.k.a. James Squeaky) psychedelic collage works depicting his cat to the oh-so-cool, cruisin'-in-the-Mini-Cooper video for Boy Eats Drum Machine's "Eunuch" by Eric Stanfill. Music videos aren't dying at all. A $1,500 budget may not equal a paycheck, but for Johnson "music videos are a chance for me to be excited, to collaborate with a band I love."
Here are five Portlanders that are making a splash, both around town and nationally....
The Shins, Sleater-Kinney, YACHT
"He's good. He can throw a fake tree costume together like nothing," says The Shins' Marty Crandall. ["Australia"] was the most fun I've ever had with videos or film. Yeah, dressing up as that tree; [the costume] was all attached with old Christmas tree arrangements, like three of four of them...slowly disassembled and attached to an old mountain-climber backpack, with a colander on [my head] with more of that shit attached."
, a feature film, in spring of 2008.
"I've never done a video for a band I'm not friends with, that's not making music I really like. I approach it like a film project with a ready-made soundtrack. I want to make something that I'm just psyched on, a video that fits in with my [broader] program of films."
The Shins "Australia"
Read a review of Matt McCormick's debut album, Very Stereo, here.
The Shaky Hands, Panther, The Gossip, The Thermals
From Panther's Charlie Salas-Humara: "It probably took 100 hours to build a small room entirely out of cardboard [for the "You Don't Want to Get Yr Nails Done" video,] and Whitey did the whole thing with his own money. The whole [shoot] seemed like hanging out with buddies."
Currently directing a Mudhoney documentary. Possibly going to work on a second Panther video.
"[It comes from] the feeling I get from a song, a mood. Then, a shot comes into my mind. And I go from there. I rarely ever listen to lyrics. If you do a video based on them, that's you interpreting it. That ruins the mystique of the song." He adds: "I get offered a lot of music videos for 10 times the budget for a band that's 10 times worse. I'd rather make no money doing a video for a band I love."
Filmmaker, primarily for commercials.
The Thermals "Pillar of Salt"
Cursive, Chin Up Chin Cup, M. Ward, Panther
"As a rule of thumb, I don't want to ever make a music video of a band just playing instruments. Unless there's some really interesting visual technique or reason for it, which is rare. To me, it's super boring with a capital fucking 'B.' I will [also] never work with a band whose music I don't believe in. For me, music videos are this great opportunity. You have a great song, and three to four minutes to do something really visually interesting. I try not to blow that chance."
Au Revoir Simone's "Dark Halls" (plans call for a Three Stooges-meets-Louise Brooks theme).
From Chin Up Chin Up's Jeremy Bolen: "I liked the idea of being in the snow globe [for "This Harness Can't Ride Anything"] and Eric's attention to detail. He's very open to our ideas. Eric's since become a friend, comes out to shows, hangs out."
Music director for Wieden & Kennedy.
M. Ward "Chinese Translation"
The Shins, Menomena, Pavement, The Thermals, Belle & Sebastian, R.E.M., Green Day (and countless more)
"My approach has been to spend time with the musicians and imagine that I live within their records," Bangs explains. "And then try to conjure up and bring out visuals that extend the world their records created in my head."
Working with Michel Gondry on a Björk video.
From Menomena's Danny Seim: "I try to write music by focusing on the end result rather than the (occasionally infinite) steps it takes to get there. Failing is a giant part of my creative process, and I've come to accept it as such. I'd say Lance's approach is similar."
Filmmaker. Currently in New Zealand assisting Spike Jonze with production of Where the Wild Things Are.
Menomena "Wet & Rusting"
E*Rock (known as Wyld File in collaboration with Massachusetts art collective Paper Rad, and as Eric Mast on his driver's license)
The Gossip, Beck, Ratatat, The Blow, YACHT, Nice Nice, Copy
From Copy's Marius Libman: "His visual style, with its primary-and-Day-Glo colors and pixelated, simple-but-detailed designs, fits really well with my music. The video [for "Fist"] will also include some artwork that my girlfriend did for the album blended with Flash animation and live footage of me. I feel pretty confident that it's going to totally rule."
Copy's "Fist." Says E*Rock: "It's way past due."
"Songs just put the pictures in my head, but it's not always that straightforward. Every song is different. It's nice to have someone working with you to collaborate. I like working with Ben Jones [of Wyld File and Paper Rad]: He's super creative and open to whatever. We're good at pulling ideas out of each other. So, it makes it exciting because you're racing to get it done just to see what the finished product will be like."
Freelance designer. Formerly a buyer for the now-defunct Ozone Phase 3 record shop.
The Gossip "Standing in the Way of Control"