By contributor Martin Simmonds
As his award-winning documentary film One Man In The Band prepares for its UK premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival, director Adam Clitheroe tells us how a chance meeting led him into the strange, solitary world of one-person bands.
A man gouging chunks of deep blues from a fuzzed-up lap steel guitar, a medieval flautist playing a miniature theremin with a skeleton string puppet, a vaudevillian troubadour with a rhythm section made of pram wheels, and a drummer so frenzied he virtually self-immolates; these are some of the cast of the feature-length documentary One Man In The Band. But this is not a film that pokes fun at oddball characters. Rather, it’s a deeply humane meditation on what drives people to pursue their creative endeavours, alone, and the price they sometimes pay.
Adam explains that, as with so many great ideas, it was inspired by a conversation in a pub.
“I started making the film when I met a bloke called Man From Uranus in a pub at a gig, and he’s a one-man band who plays theremins and Moog synthesizers and he wears Wellingtons on his hands and he’s got this beep-hat on his head. And he’s this absolutely wonderful, far out, eccentric character, originally from America, who was in the US army in the first Gulf War, and somehow ended up in Britain in the Cambridgeshire countryside.”
Watching the film it’s not hard to see why Adam was struck by Man From Uranus. Affable yet obsessive, he seems to be in a genre of one, and, like most of the acts featured, is sincere about his music without taking himself too seriously. The director’s interest was piqued.
“I think when you make a documentary you tend to scratch at the surface of something that looks mildly curious. And then you very quickly find other things where maybe there’s a little bit of a connection. So I started meeting lots of other one-man and one-woman bands, some of whom just had something in them that clicked for me. So the question was ‘what have these ones that interest me got in common?”
Man from Uranus
“And for me, what unified the people I was interested in was the sense of rawness and emotional nerves being on the surface, and I got the feeling that maybe they were all a little bit driven and maybe a little bit lonely.”
Adam recognises that he became interested in the subject partly because it resonated with him personally. There was something within himself and the way he worked which drew him inexorably toward these characters.
“I’ve been working as a filmmaker for quite a few years now and originally working in 16mm artist film and quite strange, esoteric, quirky films like that. As time went on I found I was working more and more on my own, with nobody wanting to work with me! And so eventually, the way the filmmaker was working and the subject matter of one-man bands kind of came together.”
The film follows seven performers, united by a state of mind that they are a band, not a solo artist. Three are originally from the US: the avant garde space rock of Man From Uranus, Thomas Truax, with his home-made instruments/band members including the Hornicator – a customised gramophone horn – and Sister Spinster (she of the percussive pram wheels), plus The Two Tears, originally a five-piece band, now a hard as nails one-woman rock ‘n roll outfit.
The British contingent consists of Ninki V, formerly in a rival band to the Medieval Babes but now making odd, gleeful electronica, Honkeyfinger, with his woodsman beard and primal Hawaiian lap steel guitar, and Dennis Hopper Choppers, who plays a kind of twisted delta blues. Finally there is Duracell, a drumming dervish from France whose mesmerising act involves drums wired up with synth-triggers to create a tsunami of electronic noise as he propels himself to oblivion.
Most of the acts have previously been in bands with other people, but found band members unreliable or felt the need for complete creative control. Adam likens their common pursuit to the quest for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – the idea that there is this perfect creative project which, like the pot of gold, always proves elusive. Although there are often more pragmatic reasons for going alone; Thomas Truax admits that he “started to develop mechanical instruments because I couldn’t feed the drummer any more”
As the filmmaker followed the bands around, acting as roadie, confidante and fellow traveller, bonding with them on boring train journeys and sharing the highs and lows of life on the road, he found himself entering the rhythm of their lives. And the film’s portrayal of this rhythm is one of its strengths; the juxtaposition of the adrenalin rush of live performance with empty hotel corridors, dreamy ferry crossings and dank canal paths gives it an elegiac quality.
“The film is partly a portrait of just life in Britain in the sense that it’s endless shots of roads and bored looking cats and cups of coffee and old ladies with shopping trolleys, interspersed with these quite mad, magical musical moments. And I think for a lot of us life’s like that; it’s quite easy to show those rhythms of life with other people, with the absolute ennui and boredom and banality of the general, beautiful crapness of everyday life, and then trying to break that up with something euphoric.”
Thomas Truax and Friends
Although the overall budget was under £500, the film was expensive in terms of time and energy. Doing everything himself, from filming to editing, it took Adam nearly two years to make, and by the end of it he felt he too was becoming the obsessive one-man band. But by taking this approach, the film elicits tremendously natural, self-aware responses from its protagonists, which hint at the darker side of this strange existence. The end result is a moving and rewarding viewing experience, particularly for anyone who has chased their creative dream.
One Man In The Band premiered at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, the largest documentary film festival in the world, where it showed on double bills with the Joe Strummer feature The Future Is Unwritten and the documentary Joy Division, garnering some good press. It has since shown at festivals from Estonia to Minnesota, Korea to Cleveland, and recently picked up the Best International Documentary award at the ViMus festival in Portugal. As it comes home for its UK premiere, at which Man From Uranus will be playing a live set, and with a DVD release slated for early next year, Adam describes how it feels to see it out there.
“I’ve always thought that the films you make are a bit like idiot children, where you kind of get them up and walking on their own two feet and then they wander off and you just want them to be safe, but you’re always a bit worried they’re going to get squashed on the road or something. You know, there comes a point where you just have to turn your back and if they get squashed that’s their own fault. It’s a terrible metaphor, but at the moment it’s at the stage of being this slightly weird offspring that’s starting to find its own feet, and I think it’s going to be quite healthy.”
last updated: 22/09/2008 at 13:26
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