Film me courageous: Atlanta's Drivin' 'n' Cryin' rejoiced in rockumentary
by Jeremy Kennedy for The Examiner
Film me courageous: Atlanta's Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ rejoiced in radio celebrity’s rockumentary
Every town has that one band that they claim as their own. Whether stardom is defined as a gold record, sell-out shows at the local tavern, or a once-in-a-lifetime performance on a nationally broadcast late night show, they have risen above the status quo to become the local superstars of their day. Setting the baseline at levels nearly unachievable for those that dare to mimic their designation, they will always remain in the upper echelon of historical importance no matter who threatens to conquer their throne of talent.
Although the 1970s are really credited as the decade when grass rooted rock legacies were born in the U.S.A., very few of those successes remained grounded in their hometowns and transplanted their fame nationally. Bands like Chicago, Steely Dan, and Grand Funk Railroad certainly pinned their hearts to the locals that believed they were the best, but the fame and fortune of global triumph lured the prominent away to bigger cities with faster cars, and a thirst that never seemed to quench with opportunities. KISS may have been from Amityville, but we all know which city they own.
In the Eighties, the fever of musical boundless creativity was born. The inspired zeal of antirational enthusiasm went viral, even in the Bible-belted Southeast. While the region’s most quintessential bands Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers were never truly intimidated by the era of American punk, power-pop and new wave, their crowns were rattled a bit as society began to recognize a fresh league of bands on the horizon, influenced by the unconventional Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Velvet Underground. Whereas Skynyrd and the Allmans would forever be enshrined in the beer busting billiard bars, a young breed of southern art rockers began stimulating energies of aggression in the form of noise-rock. Paying their dues in some of the most unventilated night club dungeons hidden deep in the downtown alleyways of some of the South’s most industrial cities, the stages were small, the crowds were irritable and the music was loud. And like every generation, young adults reach out to claim something for their own. In Raleigh, the Connells were jangle-popping contagious, southern melodies while in nearby Winston-Salem, the dB’s were accumulating a massive following regionally underneath the Mason-Dixon Line. Of course, everyone knows what was going down in Athens, but what about Atlanta?
Perhaps no one can answer that question more prolifically than The Regular Guys morning show host Eric Von Haessler (WNNX). Haessler, who ironically spent the 1980s outside of Georgia, has recently made his film producing debut, chronicling the beginnings of Atlanta’s homegrown rockers, Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ in an extraordinary attempt to arrest the band’s fruitful beginnings while confronting the frustrations over failures of fame in spite of the longstanding gratitude they hold with their fans in the Deep South.
Haessler’s film, ‘Scarred but Smarter’ (named after the band’s 1986 debut LP) is a compelling collection of raw video, testimonial interviews, concert clips, and monologues of the band’s fluctuating, archived and current members. As with any rockumentary, it’s not a highway joyride, but it is certainly highly entertaining. Candid yet cleverly crafted, Haessler, who lead vocalist / founder Kevn Kinney described as “clueless to (who) we were” when interviewed for the first time some 20 years ago by the afternoon jockey in the former macho studio of 96-Rock, completed the 3-year project after financing the majority of the project himself.
Selling out the classically lo-fi convenience of the Plaza Theatre, Haessler acknowledged that he wasn’t certain why he gravitated to this laborious endeavor. “I can’t tell you why I felt like I should tell their story,” he said to a packed audience of Cryin’ fans and Regular Guys followers, “but when you feel this strong about something, you can’t let it rest.”
Although the Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ anthology isn’t absolute, twenty-five years of sex, drugs and rock and roll does provide plenty of gripping material and profound content, ideal for a filmmaker making his production debut in a competitive world where everyone is virtually a movie maker to some degree.
On the heels of the smashing evening of the film’s debut, the author caught up with this Regular Guy to explore the mind of a Yankee observer to uncover the challenges, celebrations, and confessions of the South’s most popularly underrated band of all-time, Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’.
1) JK: Well Eric, it’s finally arrived. How does it feel to finally debut this film publically? What has been the greatest reward from your efforts so far?
EVH: I feel a sense of relief. It took me three years to make the movie and to finally be able to share it with audiences is fun. I thought of it as an experiment. There isn't a more independent film out there. I wanted to see if I could create something that had cinematic sweep on my desktop computer. I financed it myself and made it on my desktop Mac. Not even a tower- just a store bought Mac and Final Cut Pro 7. So to see it work for audiences in a theater setting was a reward I wasn't expecting. But it made everything we'd done over three years worth it.
2) JK: Without the modesty, it is undeniable that you’ve rekindled great interest in Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ again. Seeing nearly all of the band’s former members, including drummer Jeff Sullivan, reunited for one special event like this must leave you with a sense of pride. Did you ever imagine that you’d have so much cooperation from all the present and past members of the band, including those that had been fired but not forgotten along the career path when you decided to engage in this endeavor? Did you receive complete participation from everyone you reached out to?
EVH:Every current and past member of the band was thoroughly cooperative. All gave candid interviews and bent their schedules to one degree or another to accommodate the movie. I was lucky because there are so many colorful characters around the band who were very open with us as well. I let them all know from the beginning that I planned to snoop around in some uncomfortable places- and everyone eventually just opened up. It's a movie full of people speaking their minds and I think that was the biggest payoff from the access granted. I tried not to abuse it or turn it into a reality show type of thing when following them with cameras. They are an honest and true band and this movie had to be honest and true to have any chance of capturing what they're about. After a couple years everyone got relaxed enough to tell the truth.
3) JK: ‘Scarred but Smarter’ is complimented with testimonies by several of the Southeast’s most important rock icons, including Peter Buck, Darius Rucker, and Edwin McCain. As an amateur filmmaker, were you met with any red-tape challenges of getting them on board to contribute to your project?
EVH: I was lucky to have Scott Munn helping me out. Scott's tour managing for Blackberry Smoke right now- but he used to tour manage for Kevn (solo) and Drivin n Cryin. He began helping me in early 2011. He hooked me up with Peter, Darius, & Edwin. He also conducted two of those interviews and had a great deal to do with keeping continuity with certain themes that run throughout the movie. Randy Blazak was the band's first manager and now lives in Portland.Peter Buck had agreed to an interview but wasn't going to be in Georgia within my time frame so I rented equipment in Portland, had Randy pick it up, turn the camera on himself for an interview (questions submitted by email)- then take the equipment up to Seattle and conduct the interview with Peter at his office. Randy did a great job and Peter's interview was a gift to the project. I didn't know what to expect but he gave us a compelling interview, full of detail and honest emotion.
Darius Rucker was very accomodating- sitting down for an interview just one day home from a European tour, and just before the start of a charity golf tournament. And Edwin McCain just lit up during his interview. He's a huge fan of Drivin n Cryin. We also got a lot of great stuff out of Fred LeBlanc from Cowboy Mouth.He ends up kind of being the George Will of the piece.
4) JK: Like the best of Eighties music-documentaries, one of your film’s strengths is that you escort the viewer through the band’s previous incarnations The Prosecutors and later the Nightporters. Were you just as surprised as viewers to learn that some members of Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ were actively engaged in post-punk? How rare is that video footage and how did you obtain it?
EVH: It is probably a surprise to most people that Drivin n Cryin is a punk rock band. They have many styles, maybe too many for their own good, but the beating heart at the center of the band is punk rock… the punk ethic. Both Kevn and Tim were in great punk rock bands before they met in Atlanta to form DNC and it was a mutual love of that music that brought them together.
The footage of Kevn fronting The Prosecutors is from a film they made about themselves back in the early 80's. It's awesome footage. I'm sure many people are surprised to see the future singer of Straight To Hell screaming his way through the Prosecutors song Brute Force. But that's who he still is today. He's more like that person screaming into a microphone than the Americana image that surrounds him. One of the cool things in the movie- though I never draw attention to it- is that the red Mosrite Kevn is playing in that old Prosecutors footage is the same guitar he's playing in most of the current live stuff that's in there.
5) JK: One aspect of your film that stands out almost subliminally is that you don’t actively narrate the film, opting instead to allow monolog conversation to smooth the transition of chapter to chapter. This had to be incredibly painstaking when editing the film. Although you’re one of Atlanta’s most recognizable voices, why did you resist the temptation to narrate this story if you thought it so important?
EVH: In an earlier version of the movie my voice was more prominent. For awhile the edit followed me while I went in search of the story. But Kevn and Tim were interesting and funny enough- the piece didn't need me flitting about like some low-rent Morgan Spurlock. So I decided to lay back and let the band, their friends, and other interested parties tell the story.
I'm glad you mentioned chapter transitions. I think we handle that in interesting ways. We often have, as you said, one person or a montage of people changing the subject as a way to push the story forward. It ended up working better than I thought it would- and hopefully makes it look a bit different from other rock docs.
6) JK: Not only did you lug a video camera around for 3 years, capturing the lives and those related to Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’, but you also produced, edited, directed, and financed this documentary yourself. Which of these roles did you find the most satisfying? What lessons did you learn about film-making that you won’t repeat should you initiate another film project for EVH Productions?
EVH: Lesson #1: Get the money first next time!
I'm lucky enough to have some disposable income but I only have one movie like this in me. The producing role was easy because a producer finds the money- and I found me. So that was one-stop shopping. Directing the live shoots was exhilarating. We often had 8 to 9 cameras going at once. But editing is my favorite part of the process. There are over 900 edits in this movie. This is where it became possible to make something cinematic on my desktop computer. It was the willingness to work for hours and hours getting each edit just right. Editing is rhythm and it's the only part of the process I feel 100% comfortable with. I've never taken an editing class in my life- but I could teach it. It comes natural to me.
7) JK: Your journey with Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ started in 2009. Based on the outcome of the film’s premiere and the revival of the band’s spirit across this city, how much longer will you continue to invest your life to Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’? What other bands’ stories would you like to tell and why?
EVH: I am a certified Drivin n Cryin Super Fan! I have other ideas for them but I think it's best that we get away from each other for awhile before doing anything else professionally.
The personal part is different. These guys have become my friends. I feel like they're my brothers. I joined them at SXSW and just carried guitars from the van to backstage, etc. I love being in the van and being part of the team for brief periods of time. They humor me & let me participate every once in awhile- and it's fun. But I think we're all friends now- and I don't see that changing.
I think I'm going to be making a music video for someone else very soon. Too soon to announce- but it's probably up next. Then I'd like to make a short film with real actors. That'll be a real challenge for me. I've never worked with actors before so I don't know if I'm any good at it.
8) JK: When an artist is performing, mistakes are sometimes made, hopefully unnoticed, but carried on through recovery. However, when filming, the director has the power of the retake. Did you pursue any retakes? How difficult was it to ‘teach’ members how to behave naturally with the camera on in spite of their local celebrity status?
EVH: I shot over 50 hours of footage for the movie and went back and pulled whatever I needed to push the narrative. If things were botched up it just wasn't used because there was always plenty more footage to pull from. I did do a few later interviews with Kevn where I would ask specific questions that I knew would bridge gaps, or otherwise help pull together the running narrative.
It didn't take long for the band to get comfortable and act natural in front of the camera. These guys are pros. They've seen everything. And the upside of being around them for three years was they couldn't help but be candid. Nobody can keep up a facade for that long.
9) JK: Inarguably, the core of the success of Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ isn’t the musical talent, a heavily funded record label, or a Billboard chart position. Kevn Kinney’s lyrical thumbprints are the nucleus that created, championed, and define this band’s victories. What revelation did you learn about Kinney that you were committed to share with viewers? Was there anything that you didn’t share with us that might be of interest?
My revelation was the depth of the catalog. I don't think enough people realize that this guy has written over a hundred great songs. I didn't expect to be able to swim so deep in that catalog. I use as much of their music as I can on the soundtrack- but we barely scratch the surface.
Kevn's personality is a bit more mercurial than I explore in the movie. I could do a different movie on Kevn that would have very little overlap with this one. Kevn is the real deal in a marketplace of false poets. He lives in his own head a great deal of the time- but also has a very social side. It just depends when you catch him. The band is punk rock but Kevn is a poet. The greatness of the band is forged by the clash of the punk rocker and the peace-loving poet… and it all goes down inside his head. But the whole thing works like a machine that continually produces these great songs. Kevn is writing new, great songs all the time. He has songs he's been writing for twenty years and songs that come to him nearly fully formed. It's remarkable. He sings something new to me nearly every time I see him. There's a lot more that can be said about him. I believe he will eventually get the recognition that's due. The catalog is too good. It simply can't be ignored.
10) JK: Much like the past struggles of Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’, you too are faced with the challenge of marketing your product. What steps do you plan to take to try and recover from your 3-year, lofty investment?
EVH: I did this as an experiment. One part was to see if I could make something cinematic on my desktop computer. The other was to test a "build it and they will come" theory. I didn't begin to think about things like distribution until after the film was done. I said I was going to make an entertaining movie. All I cared about was delivering on that promise. I knew getting it to the marketplace would be a whole different thing. The good news is that since the first public showings people have come forth with help in that area- and hopefully we'll get it to TV, DVD, etc. in a reasonable amount of time. Until then we have plans to take the movie to premiere in a few different cities- with performances by the band perhaps being part of the package.