Our “little” city of Austin, Texas, has been known around the world as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Everyone wants to be a part of this beautiful city. The musicians flock to Austin because of the many opportunities it offers for them. Our music scene has made it one of best places to live, and its earned its place on many musicians’ and film makers’ lists of places to create and expand.
In September 2008 to January 2010, director Nathan Christ, co-producer Daniel Perlaky and cinematographer Robert Garza photographed the Red River District’s indie music scene. They climbed cranes, traveled across Texas to follow musicians on tour, pulled all-nighters filming. They began filming just around the time Austin formed the Live Music Task Force to “deal with” what they called the “live music crisis.” The new noise ordinances began to change the way we all experienced live music venues, which Nathan, Daniel and Robert captured in their film “Echotone.”
Since its release it has become a critically acclaimed documentary around the globe. I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Daniel and Nathan about their film and their creative process.
AFM: How did the idea for this film get started?
NC: Daniel and I met while he was managing the band Belaire. We thought we were making a documentary just about them, a promotional piece about one of the catchiest bands I’ve ever heard. So it started like that, and I never thought we’d make a feature film. I thought it would be Internet content or something like that or a web series. But with the politics in development, that happened in the industry then and still now, is what catapulted the film.
AFM: What has changed with the music scene and Austin since you filmed “Echotone”?
NC: A lot has changed. Emo’s, for example, they closed, the Waller Creek project has started which is going to change the entire face of downtown and Red River. Most of the high-rise condos that you see today were not there, they were just skeletons and we were able to film that entire process. The Live Music Task force was in full effect then and has now disbanded.
DP: On the flip side of that change, AMP has formed and given a stronger voice to Austin musicians because it’s bringing in a lot of business owners and people who have credibility instead of just people picketing outside. You have a real tangible economical force talking for musicians, and that’s been helpful. As our city has grown, our credibility has grown internationally and that’s good for up and coming bands.
As far as the downtown development, it is sad to see Emo’s close, just like it was sad to see Liberty Lunch close. But, at the same time, creativity always finds a home somewhere where it’s more vibrant, and it may be the end of the Red River strip at some point, but the East Side is incredibly vibrant with smaller venues that are popping up and showcasing new bands. It’s an exciting thing — I don’t look at it as a sad thing. I also really love being downtown now, compared to, say 10 years ago, it was so desolate, and now many new people are living there and making it their home. The people care about surroundings and there are little restaurants and things that are popping up. It may not be for every starving artist, but we can all live together in the urban core and share space, which is what other great cities do. So I’ve seen that as a positive change.
AFM: What are some of the smaller venues you talk about in the film?
DP: On the East side we’ve got places like Cheer Up Charlie’s, which is tiny, but there are lots of other businesses that keep popping up. Also there’s Frontier Bar now, which is a little bit farther on East Seventh. That whole East Seventh and East Sixth area has come alive recently. Part of it is gentrification, it is that, but all cities change, and neighborhoods change, and part of that is going to be negative for some people and positive for others. I think for most people it’s great to have those types of spaces to show art and to show music and to have a place to collaborate with each other.
What I see the most of, walking on the East Side is that I bump into a dozen people I know and we talk about things we are going to do together or things we attended together, so there’s a sense of community, much more so than 5 to 10 years ago. One thing that is really interesting about Austin is that it’s a city that accommodates artists’ lives. If you take Ringo Deathstarr, for example, they tour often, and did a European tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. You’d think they would be out living the rock star life and away from Austin, but they still work at the local Thunderbird. Their employers really understand musicians sometimes have to be gone for weeks at a time and when then come back they need to work, and, as long as they cover for each other, you can have a viable business even with such flexibility.
NC: That’s why local businesses are so important.
AFM: Tell us a little bit about the artists you featured. How did you get connected with them, how did their stories come about, and what’s happened to them since the film?
DP: Belaire was one of those pilot bands, that was the one that I managed. They peaked, it seemed like they were posed for success, but there was a lot of conflict with what it means to sell out, and this is covered in the movie from a lot of different sides. We still work together, and right now we are releasing another record for them. They are moving forward, but at their own pace. All artists should decide for themselves what the appropriate pace is. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating for someone like me who’s trying to help. You kind of need to strike when the iron is hot and there are things you have to do from a managerial and business standpoint that an artist may not be interested in. That’s a struggle that I think is common to all art and business.
The White White Lights are doing really well, except that the wild fires in Bastrop recently burned down their house. There have been a lot of benefit shows that they have been involved in for other fire victims, which I think is really inspiring. They are putting out another record, too, once they get their studio back up. Black Joe Lewis has been getting more and more acclaim, so he’s on the same trajectory as he was in the movie. Dana Fokulberry released a record, too. So everyone is pretty much active.
Bill Baird did too. Bill is constantly being Bill and doing things that he does with all sorts of records. There are also offshoot projects that we didn’t get a chance to cover in the movie but also taking more control of his music. Sleep Good is doing well, White Denim, of course, and, there’s this band, Speak, that has been really interesting and just put out a record. I feel like it’s still a vibrant community in Austin, and more bands are popping up doing interesting things. Like I said, Ringo Deathstarr touring with Smashing Pumpkins is a big deal. They are getting bigger outside of Austin, certainly in Europe and Japan and places like that.
AFM: How did you land in Austin? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
NC: I grew up in San Antonio and it was, I wasn’t happy about going to UT at first. I felt like I was entering a factory, but I got into film school, and I don’t know if you’d call it the top, but I clawed my way into making some films and meeting some great people, most of who are my collaborators on “Echotone.” I’m a traveler, most of my life, and explorer. Not much to say, I hope my work speaks for me.
DP: I’m originally from Budapest, Hungary, and we moved here after the fall of the Berlin Wall. My parents are cancer researchers, so that’s how I ended up in the States. I ended up in Austin for school, as well, and like Nathan said, it’s like a factory, but at the same time a factory that forces you to become an individual in a way. Unlike some people I know who went to art school and aren’t doing anything related to their career path they have chosen, I’m fully independent and working on things that I love, and it’s based out of that need to create in a system that’s kind of like a factory. I did have some really great professors at UT who really encouraged me to find my own path. I’m primarily an art director, so I make designs, whether print or web related, but nowadays I would call myself a content producer, so I make online contact primarily, whether it’s video or photography or web content — and that’s my greatest interest, telling stories through multiple media. I love to travel, travel overseas at least once a year, but for me Austin is a good home. I’m able to live here, buy a house here, live off of the things that I love, and still find time to travel and collaborate with people.
AFM: Austin Fusion Magazine highlights the well-known, unknown and up-and-coming in their creative field. Many of the greener artists are young twenty-somethings still trying to decide what to do with their lives. Do you have any advice for these struggling artists or up-and-comers?
DP: During school, [the] best thing I ever did for myself was force myself to pay for part of my schooling through the work that I was learning how to do. I often turned in homework assignments or projects that were things that I got paid to do, or got some sort of compensation for whether that was getting into a club or whatever. I’d design posters for people, I really learned how the business side of things worked. That’s what’s the greatest things that people miss in art related fields, or even journalism.
Aside from learning how to do things in the real world, you also learn how dream big and do things from your perspective, because as a student and young person you have a different perspective, and that’s valuable, especially to older people, especially now when we’re recognizing that a 14-year-old’s blog could have more hits than the New York Times. There’s something significant about that and you as a content producer have that role of seeing from your own eyes and finding that story in a unique way. With a little bit of business skill and a little bit of tenacity you’re able to make that your living by the time you get out of school, which is what I did.
DP: Any little stupid thing could lead to a bigger stupid thing that will eventually end up getting you a job. Not that “Echotone” is stupid, but there are moments where you’re like, “What are we doing, where is this going?” and the next thing you know we’re in film festivals around the world, meeting so many new people, being inspired and getting jobs out of it! I think a lot of us have gotten credibility out of the work we’ve done through this project that we loved. We could of just stopped early and given up, but we would have never reached this level.
NC: It’s been on the festival thing for a year, a year and a half, and we’ve played a lot of festivals, and are doing a lot of international festivals still. It’s available on DVD and digital download, so now the focus has to shift to the continuation of that story.
AFM: Where can we get a copy of the film?
NC: Waterloo Records — there’s a big poster outside. It’s huge and really cool. I just didn’t know it was going to be so big!
DP: It’s important to support our local business as well as to go directly to the artists. You can also buy it directly from us, you can go to www.echotonefilm.com. That’s how we get the majority of our funding.
Daniel is working in Austin with different projects in music and film, while also working as an art director for another online magazine. Nathan is traveling and currently staying in Chicago while he works on another film inspired by “Echotone.” He is creating a six-part miniseries featuring other creative cities around the United States.
You can help the Echotone with funding for upcoming projects and a future miniseries by contacting them directly via their Kickstarter campaign.
Written and Images by Linda Hughes (firstname.lastname@example.org)