How To Grow A Band is an engrossing documentary that captures the earliest stages of the band, Punch Brothers. The film traces the band's evolution, beginning with Chris Thile's desire to bring his composition "The Blind Leaving The Blind" to full fruition, while exploring the challenges and struggles of the collaborative dynamics of the group. Trusting their audience to follow them through (then) unexplored musical terrain, Mr. Thile and his bandmates in Punch Brothers bravely attempt to follow their desires and musical aspirations to push themselves, and their listeners, further into new directions.
Ultimately, the band triumphs, defying all preconceived notions by delivering an ambitions piece of music, releasing their debut album Punch, performing at New York City's Lincoln Center, and relocating to New York to devote themselves completely to the project. How To Grow A Band impressively captures the inner-workings of a band bumping and crashing their way along a hard road traveled, while capturing a truly unique look into the creative processes of some exceptionally talented musicians struggling to find their own unique identity, together.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with director and co-producer Mark Meatto and co-producer Michael Bohlmann regarding their film.
Before we dig into How To Grow A Band, I'd like to ask if you could briefly discuss some of your previous work and experiences:
Can you talk about some of your previous experiences as filmmakers, and music fans prior to starting this project?
Mark Meatto:Well I’ve been listening to music my whole life, working on movies for about half of it. For my first jobs on proper feature films, I worked as an assistant editor, which, for me, provided a pretty great vantage point on the elements required to construct a film.
One of the main things an assistant editor does is log all the incoming footage. So back then, that meant I got to watch everything at speed as it came off of the tapes and onto the editing machines. I got to see all the raw footage before it had been manipulated in any way.
When I graduated up to being an editor, I began to develop a better sense for what were useful things to have shot and what kinds of things never made the edit. Those early experiences in the editing room really end up informing my work in the field.
When I’m filming now, I imagine editor me cursing cinematographer me for not capturing what a given scene needs to function. This doesn’t always work, but it helps me from going too far off the rails.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a filmmaker? Please feel free to discuss specific films, artists, directors, artistic sensibilities, etc.
Mark Meatto:In college I took a year off and headed to France for a kind of apprenticeship with Richard Leacock. Along with guys like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, Ricky was part of a small group of American filmmakers who, in the 1960’s were messing around with a new technology that allowed them to record synch-sound on light weight tape recorders. This changed everything in documentary film, because now these guys could bring their 16mm cameras anywhere and actually record dialogue that matched with the picture. And they could react and respond quickly to whatever was unfolding in front of their lenses. This was the beginning of what often gets called cinema verité.
It is probably fair to say that I was pretty well indoctrinated into many of the filmmaking values that sprang from that movement, chief among them, the filmmaker’s desire to create, as Ricky loved to put it, a feeling of “being there.” And you can see that value at work in the great music films those guys and that era produced: movies like Don’t Look Back, Gimme Shelter and Monterey Pop. Not that How To Grow A Band is a true verité film. It breaks many of verité’s most important rules. But that sense of locating the audience in a specific moment in time is something the film strives to do in its own way.
After my time in France, I spent the better part of six years working with Ross McElwee on, among other things, a film called Bright Leaves. Ross had been a student of Leacock’s in the 1970’s, and took some of the lessons of verité filmmaking off in a whole new direction making a series of highly personal films, most famously a film called Sherman’s March. My time with Ross has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on how I think about documentary. Even though his films are very different from mine stylistically. From Ross I learned about patience and process and, above all else, about the importance of respecting your subjects and your audience.
How does film and music connect for you? What do you find most exciting about combining these together?
Mark Meatto:I think for many of us who don’t play, music seems like a kind of magic: Where does it come from? How do they even do that? And I think that promotes a curiosity to peek behind the curtain when we can. Movies can help focus that curiosity. With, for example, the close-up or certain kinds of editing techniques, you can see music in a whole different way than you can from, say, even the front row of a concert hall.
Through filmmaking, it becomes possible to sneak a glance at some of music’s more intricate and intimate features: a stolen look among bandmates, a subconsciously repeated gesture, a flying set of fingers. That sort of thing. Plus, songs all have their own built in shapes and structures. Those are things we played around with quite a bit in piecing together How To Grow A Band.
What are some of your favorite music documentaries, especially those most inspiring?
Mark Meatto: There are so many wonderful music documentaries. And I can watch and enjoy pretty much any and all band movies, even those that critics classify as terrible. My favorite music films are ones where it is clear going into it that the filmmakers don’t know where the story will end up. Films like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, or Anvil: The Story of Anvil. In each of those you are just kind of along for the ride as these archetypal, yet totally unique stories unfurl.
But like I mentioned earlier, I think the films that have had the biggest impact on me are the music documentaries that came out of the direct cinema movement: films like Montery Pop and Don’t Look Back. With those two in particular, even though they are very different films, they each achieve something very similar. They place you right there in that moment in time. One way or the other, that’s something I think I will always be chasing in my own work.
Can you discuss your interest(s) in music, as well as your specific interest in Chris Thile's music?
Michael Bohlmann:I like music from all over the map. But I seem to always gravitate to good music that defies genre. It's that quality of Thile and Punch Brothers music that always attracted me most. I'm not a died-in-the-wool bluegrass person and I was even less so when I started this project.
But I've been a longtime fan of folk giants like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and guys like Tom Petty who straddled genres. I love what bands like Mumford and Sons, Decemberists and Arcade Fire are doing these days for folk-inspired sounds in the mainstream.
I've been a big fan of Radiohead for years. They're probably my all-time favorite band. And I think the Punch Brothers and I share some of those sentiments. I saw a concert of theirs at Vystaviste in Prague a few years back which completely blew my mind. And I got to meet a few band members after, which was a trip. They're an example of a band whose constant self-reinvention always yields innovation that’s still pleasing to the ears. I'm also fascinated by electronic music from pioneers like Kraftwerk and more recent innovators like Skrillex and Deadmau5.
When did you hear about Chris' new project (Punch Brothers) and what inspired you to begin this project?
Michael Bohlmann:I first had the idea to make a film one summer night in 2006. Gabe Witcher and I grew up in LA playing music together and had known each other for 20 years. Gabe had introduced me to Chris, who had just moved to New York’s East Village not far from where I lived at the time and he'd told me they were working on a new project.
On this night, I had just watched Thile and Gabe sit in on a jam at 11th Street Bar. It was past midnight and we were a few drinks deep and we decided to stop by Thile’s place for a nightcap. It didn’t take long for instruments to reappear. I wasn't a big bluegrass aficionado, but this was clearly different from the more familiar bluegrass music we’d just heard at the bar.
Mandolin and fiddle called and answered each other in otherworldly tones and rhythms. The interplay between Gabe and Chris was hypnotic. Their bodies undulated in tempo and crescendo, as if possessed. I sat just a few feet away on the floor with nothing between me and them, which is a rare perspective for live music. They completely filled my field of view and the sound completely enveloped me. It was cinematic. And it hit me hard.
A day or two later I was on the phone with Mark, who was in LA working on another film at the time, telling him that he needed to come back to NYC and that we needed to get these guys on camera. I learned later that it was the beginnings of Thile’s 40-minute suite “The Blind Leaving The Blind” I had witnessed and that same apartment served as the de-facto studio to record “Blind’s” first demo. I’m told they actually returned to that apartment building this year with Jacquire King to prepare for their latest record Who’s Feeling Young Now?
What did you think you were getting into as you began the project? Did you have any expectations?
Michael Bohlmann:The project didn't start out as a feature film. I knew I wanted to capture the live experience of the music and convey the personal interplay of these five singularly talented band members to audiences. But it wasn't initially clear that we could build or sustain a feature film out of it. Our thinking started more along the lines of maybe a live music video or series of web videos.
We did our first test shoot in October 2007 at The Baggot Inn in the Village, which has since closed, on the day the band came out of the studio from recording Punch. It was an electrifying performance. We were so impressed by the way the individual guys and the music translated to screen that we knew we wanted more.
The band was gearing up to launch their first tour supporting Punch and "The Blind Leaving the Blind." We became intrigued by the question of how audiences would react to “Blind” relative to the more traditional fare of Nickel Creek and Thile's solo record How To Grow A Woman From the Ground.
So, we took a deep breath and Mark headed out on tour with his camera. We didn't know where things would go or what we would capture, but we had a sense that bringing this unconventional new sound and song form to traditional bluegrass audiences would lead to some interesting moments.
What was most surprising to you as you observed the musicians, the band's formation, and their experiences navigating uncharted musical waters?
Mark Meatto:Probably just how grueling that life can be. How little time these guys are afforded away from the music and away from each other. A typical day was: wake up, pile into a mini-van and drive far enough away from last night’s show to have a decent chance of filling up a new venue, sound-check, practice, perform, practice again, sleep. Mix in doing press and signing autographs and there is barely time for anything that isn’t band related.
When I was filming, Punch Brothers were still getting to know each other. And they were still working on perfecting “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Which I think probably only heightened their musical responsibilities. I suspect all band’s go through this to some degree. But I doubt very many work any harder than Punch Brothers. I guess I would say their precision and dedication to craft was another eye-opener for me.
Michael Bohlmann: More perhaps than anything else, the experience of making the film underscored that, for creative musicians, the constant engine and lifeblood is the "new." Even for Punch Brothers, who had just brought forth an incredible new work fusing musical styles and stretching the capabilities of their instruments in never-before-seen ways, as soon as it was completed, the focus quickly shifted to the next thing. And then there developed a sort of nostalgic disdain for the older material. Not everyone can hang on for the ride. It's both a band's blessing and its curse: to continuously grow, evolve, and reinvent itself. Or die.
As I was watching How To Grow A Band, despite the band members' calling the band a “democratic and collaborative” experience, it definitely seemed to me that it began as a "Thile" project and then began to shift over time. What is your take on the collaborative aspect of the band during this stage of their development?
Mark Meatto:Well it is true that at the time of filming, Punch Brothers were working on a piece of music composed by one of the band members. As opposed to subsequent records where they are writing as an ensemble. Audiences can draw their own conclusions about exactly how collaborative the band was at that moment in time.
Even though How To Grow A Band is somewhat opened ended on this question, I think the movie makes it clear that the wish for a truly collaborative experience is something that each band member held close to his heart from the beginning. More than, say, the critical or commercial response to the music, I think this wish represents what is at stake for this band in this film. That desire gets complicated by the level of individual talent each of these guys possesses. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the years to come.
Did that impression change for you, or stay the same?
Michael Bohlmann:I think it was on the road during shooting that first tour that the band began to think beyond "Blind" and really experience the joy of a more collaborative writing experience. We capture some of that in the film.
I think it's been a gradual process of coming into their own as a collaborative songwriting entity that began in the hotel rooms and back seats of vans on that tour, which continued through Antifogmatic and flourished with Who's Feeling Young Now?
I also found the footage of their first live performance tough to watch as the band was heckled, how the audience looked bored, and even some began walking out. Can you talk about the uncertainty you saw while working with the band at this crucial point of their development?
Mark Meatto:From where I was sitting, it seemed that the uncertainty around that piece of music was something that everyone in the band was aware of and had accepted before the tour even began.
As Noam says plainly early in the film “we’re going to have to brace ourselves for some negative reactions.” So the question then becomes: "How do you react or adapt when faced with those types of responses? What do you do when that particular brand of adversity actually arrives?"
As filmmakers, when we get panned for our work, it doesn’t usually happen to our faces, it comes in the form of a harsh review or poor attendance at a screening that we are probably not even attending. But the experience of being a touring musician is much, much more immediate. The feedback loop of audience response is practically instantaneous. But that works both ways. And as the movie shows, there was plenty of gushy applause and entranced journalists for them to experience as well.
I have to admit, when I was watching the vimeo stream of the film as I was preparing for this interview, I literally went and got my mandolin and began playing as I was watching the film. Watching and listening to these incredible musicians so closely was just incredibly inspiring.
Mark Meatto:Really, that’s fantastic! I love that.
I really enjoyed watching the band's trajectory from individual and collective uncertainty, to struggling to define their collective voice, up to the band holding their first copies of Punch CDs, performing at Lincoln Center, and ultimately relocating to NYC near the end of the film.
Can you discuss how making How To Grow A Band, spending time with the band, etc. has influenced and inspired you artistically?
Mark Meatto:I do think this film is most fundamentally about aspiration and our attempts to go farther than our natural abilities may allow. Intellectually, I think I understood from the beginning that this movie, being pretty much my first, would never match the level of craft of its subjects. Those guys are world-class and have been doing what they do practically since birth.
As I was going through the process of trying to interpret for movie audiences what Punch Brothers were doing, I always had their example staring straight back at me. First through my viewfinder and then on the editing monitors. Yeah, that can be intimidating in some ways. But mostly it can be totally inspiring. Because you’re being exposed to what it looks like for people of that level to do what they do. And you sort of realize they are wrestling with the same things all of us are.
How has your experience of making this film influenced you most as a filmmaker? How do you think it will inform and influence your work moving forward?
Michael Bohlmann: From the first test shoot to opening night last week here in NYC, How To Grow A Band took nearly five years to make. That’s a long time in anyone's life, let alone that of an ever-evolving band. I’m more attuned to idea that the world keeps changing when the camera stops and while a film gets made.
Your strategy as a film, in terms of positioning, marketing and distribution must evolve with it. I have a greater respect for the complex effort required once the film is in the can. In some ways, that's really only the beginning. And get your releases and rights done early and often. Even if you think you're totally on top of it, you're probably not!
What have been listening to lately?
Michael Bohlmann: The last album I downloaded: Metric’s Fantasies.
Mark Meatto:I’ve been listening to lots of early 1990s hip-hop. It helps keep me sane after the hundreds of hours of banjo that have washed over my ears while making this film. Nothing against bluegrass, but I need a bass drum in my ear every now and then. It helps the world go round.
What is next for you?
Mark Meatto: I’m hoping to get back to a project I’ve been shooting off and on since 2004 with my friend and collaborator Scott Braman. It’s a documentary we have been calling The Ambassador that takes place in the Ecuadorian Amazon and chronicles a relationship between two tribes: one who has had peaceful contact with the outside world for only a generation and the other who still lives in self-chosen, violently guarded isolation. It’s a wild story.
I’d like to get back to the forest later this year to visit our friends down there and film another chapter. Until recently, I’d always conceived of that project as a feature-length film. But now I’m starting to play around with the idea of it being more of an episodic new media thing. Or maybe a TV thing. Or maybe not. We’ll see.
This post originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches woodworking and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.