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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Jeanie Finlay on Sound It Out

9 December 10 interview: Paul Klotschkow
photos: David Baird

Originally from the North East, but now firmly established in Nottingham as both an artist and a film maker, both music and community have played a big role in Jeanie Finlay's work. Now the two come together for her latest project, Sound It Out - an observational, documentary portrait about Teeside's last surviving independent record shop...

What attracted you to the idea of making Sound It Out?
I grew up in the North East just outside of Stockton and went to school with Tom, the guy who runs the shop. I would always go home, get heroically drunk in some North East pub and wind him up that I am going to make a film about his shop one day. It was a chance for me to make a film about where I grew up, about men, music fans and vinyl. Anyone who lives in a small town can relate to having that record store; it's who you are and about so much more than just the music. I like the idea of vinyl being an affordable, analogue pleasure.

The film is very DIY...
I liked the idea of doing a film that evoked the spirit of independent record shops. Don't wait, just do it. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have got to make films. I get a lot of emails from students looking for the magic word. But you have just got to get on with it. You don't need to go to film school, you just need to make films!

Do you have any special memories of shopping in independent record shops?
We used to go to Alan Fearnleys in Middlesbrough on dole day. It was awful actually. We would go to Kwik Save and just buy crap to eat because I’d rather have good clothes, good music, and forget about the food. In Nottingham I loved going to Selectadisc, and a long, long time ago I used to DJ. There was just this magic of finding the brilliant tune. In some ways I preferred going to car boot sales; finding that unexpected gem rather than a new release. One of the main reasons I started making this film was I got married about eighteen months ago, and we funded part of the wedding by selling off most of our record collection.

Wasn't that a big sacrifice?
It wasn't actually, it was exciting to see the records that we had loved and treasured make quite a bit of money on eBay. We wanted to make new memories, we thought it was worth it and we’ve now started buying records again. Tom from Sound It Out was a  big DJ and he was like, “I can't believe you are doing this”. It's like a fetish market. It's a visceral experience; you take it out, you clean it, you lift it up, you check it. I would also say that it is quite a male thing - I think collecting is.

So you did a bit of DJing as well?
I DJ’d at The Skyy Club with this other girl who was a disco DJ from New York and our moniker was Shabby Chic. It was always about dancing and having fun – I’d get a bit drunk and take the needle off the wrong record and stuff which would piss off the more serious DJs. It was really fun being a woman in a man’s world which goes back to Sound It Out because I was there on and off for about eighteen months and rarely saw a woman in the shop. Admittedly there are female customers but they are usually dragged along by a man. When I asked Tom when the last time he had talked to a woman was, he told me it had been a month. I spent a long time struggling with the film thinking it's ninety-nine percent male, who's my one percent? And then I realised it was me, in the shop asking the questions.

What's the narrative thread running through Sound If Out?
It's a portrait of the shop. It's an observational film. You get to know Tom who runs the shop, get to know the ins-and-out of what happens and the regulars who come in. There are a lot of Makina boys.

Hold on, what on earth is Makina?
Makina is this horrible sounding dance music that is only popular in Valencia and the North East. Have you heard of Donk? It is like that played at 45, like nursery rhymes set to a 45 rpm beat with an MC on top of it. It's not very nice, but the lads who are in to it are really charming.

Each to their own. So the other characters…
There’s the blokes from the pub who have just heard the juke box, so they want Showaddywaddy, The Rubettes, whatever it is. Then you get the collectors, the Makina lads, the heavy metal lads, or the big lads who run a radio show from the shed at the bottom of their garden in Billingham. I picked the people I wanted to spend time with and went back to their houses to see their record collections, see how they organised them and what they did with them. The Makina Lads: I imagined a big club or them playing and getting stoned but it was actually tiny bedrooms in houses that they share with their mums on council estates. Then there is Chris who is an auditor who is really lovely and quite shy with an immaculate collection. I really like shy people in films as the quietest person can be really loud when you put a camera on them. Then there is Shane who is really in to Status Quo, it took me ages to track him down because he had been following Status Quo and Jean Michelle Jarre on tour; he will go to every gig.

You managed to find all of these different characters in this tiny record store...
You've got to wait, you've got to be patient, but then be gently persistent. One of the ways I've learnt to film is that I wear this camera brace with a camera attached to me saying “what have you go there?” “what are you buying?” It's a bit like sparring, finding a way of talking to lots of different kinds of people, I guess.

Were you never tempted to do a film about Selectadisc?
Well Selectadisc had shut and also I wanted to make a film about the North East. In a way Sound It is much richer as an environment - I'm not saying it is a better shop, but it had greater documentary potential. Also, it's not cool in anyway, it just is what it is. I'm not interested in cool. Selectadisc, it was brilliant, but it was always a bit 'cool'. A lot of pensioners go in Sound It Out as well as fourteen year olds who buy cassettes. It's pretty welcoming, an unpolished treasure; a bit ramshackle and untidy.

Sound It Out is being part funded via crowd-funding. Why go down this route instead of more traditional means?
I’d prepared a budget on how to make this on nothing and I was just really ambitious and asked everyone who I would work with if it was a big budget documentary; my first choice editor, my first choice sound mixer, DP, everyone. Everyone said yes for a token fee because they wanted to work on an interesting project. It made me realise I didn’t have to go to five hundred meetings, do the dance and go down to London a lot. I can't be arsed, I just want to get on and make it. I applied to Sideshow and it got through, which was amazing and crowd funding seemed viable. Having strangers thinking your film is good and then buying in to it is more than just money. There was a soldier in Iraq whose brother works in a Nashville record factory. He wrote me a really nice letter saying, “My brother has probably pressed loads of the records that are for sale in the shop, can I come visit?” He came on board as an associate producer. Sound It Out will have a life once it is made, it’ll be released like an indie single: there is going to be a 7” beautiful case with sleeve-notes, it will be a thing of beauty.

Is the Sound It Out screening at Sideshow going to be a shorter version than when it's released in 2011?
It’s quite an exclusive event, only eighty seats. There will be speakers; Executive Producer Dunston Bruce is coming up to talk about the film and his experiences of documentary making. He's just made a film with Sham 69 in China, which is crazy. Also his experiences in the music industry. We've invited Graham Jones who wrote the book The Last Shop Standing' about all the record shops closing down around the country. There will also be Mike Atkinson (Troubled Diva, The Guardian, Nottingham Evening Post) and Michael Kurtz from International Record Store Day There will be two bands who are in the film, Das Wonderlust and Russell and the Wolves, who will be playing live. So it will be film, talk, and music. It's only a fiver, which is amazing. People have been very generous and given powerful testimonies as to why music is important to them. I think it's more likely to be a sneak peak of the film. If we want to submit it to film festivals the horrible politics of it, is that we can't show it in its final form. We can't show a premier, because then we have given it away. You can't premier a film twice.

So when this is all done, what else have you got planned film-wise?
The Great Hip Hop Hoax will start filming in January 2011, I'm making it with Met Film and I'm working with Jon Burgerman on it doing animated reconstructions, its going to be awesome. I bet his ears are burning this week, I've been pitching making a film about him. You can put that in, it will freak him out. I really want to make a film about his salad obsessions. But anyway, the film is basically about two Scottish rappers who pretended to be American, got a record deal and lied for five years. It's really boring to sit somewhere in a chair and just talk to them, so I want to use animation to try and make it magical. You can do stuff that you can't do with reconstructions. If I see another bad reconstruction in a film I think I'm going to poke my eyes out.

How much does music play a part in your films?
With Orion and the Great Hip Hop Hoax, they are music films, but with music as a truism rather than people sitting around talking about music. Didn't Elvis Costello say, “People talking about music is like dancing about architecture”? Something like that, I'm misquoting him now, but I get it. It is totally boring. With Sound It Out, The Chapman Family just donated an exclusive track from their new album; they’re from the area and are amazing.

Is music a big influence on you in general?
I just think music is a way of expressing things that are difficult to express in your every day life. People use other people’s lyrics to tell the story of their own lives. I think hearing certain songs can remind you of falling in love, having my heart broken, moving house, becoming a parent. They are like the signposts of your life. The Orion film was on the back-burner for eight years, I bought the vinyl from a car boot sale at the Riverside Festival in Nottingham.

Is that when you first became aware of the character?
Yes - it was on gold vinyl, on Sun Records, and a man in a mask. When I put it on it was like “what the hell is this?” It’s a tragic story, a melodramatic story worthy of fiction. I like documentaries that could be fiction. I like it when you are astonished by something and you are like “what, this is real?” It just adds an extra kick to the story.

If you were asked to make a pop video, who would you make it for?
I would like to do a super group of Dolly Parton, Bobby Gentry, and Dusty Springfield. Or just something really over the top with dancing, like the Nancy Sinatra Christmas Specials. I like something with costumes and heavily choreographed. My new favourite band at the moment are Slowclub from Sheffield. I saw them at Indietracks this year and there was a lot fey pop music, and they were really unapologetic. Or Allo Darlin' or someone like that.

Are there any film soundtracks you like?
I think Wes Anderson's films are always good – Rushmore is great. My favourite ever film is from 1946, Black Narcissus, it's not particularly cool but anything shot by Jack Cardiff is a winner. The Slade film, have you seen that? Absolutely brilliant, and Velvet Goldmine as a music film is a flawed masterpiece. Making films is like the opportunity to put your own fantasy soundtrack together. With Teenland I worked with Tim Olden who does crazy stuff. He makes a barrel play dance music, prints it, then performs it. I also got all of the significant songs from my childhood and had them covered by pub bands. For Goth Cruise we used loads of goth music, like lullaby versions The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Steven Severin from the Banshees recorded a calypso version of Spellbound for the film. It is fun to be playful with it, it is all another level of storytelling.

It must be nice to get these musicians to contribute to your films?
Yeah, I think it is a big part of it. I worked with Pip Norton on Goth Cruise, and I was joking saying I wanted to make another film just so I can work with Pip again. We recorded and mixed the sound track at Air Studios. I nearly ran George Michael over in the car park.

I'm surprised it wasn't the other way round...
The studios are legendary. So you are in there mixing it, and Pip is amazing. She's going to do Sound It Out. For Sound It Out I wanted to work with bands who were unique to the North East or had real significance to the contributors. I'm currently trying to clear a lot of music on very little money.

How does clearing songs work?
It's a complete ball ache. Every time you hear any music in any film ever someone has paid to clear that. In the record shop I had to film everything mute. When trying to clear songs you want to use, you have to clear two rights; you've got to clear publishing and you've got to clear performance. The artist clears the performance, but you've got to clear it with the record label. It can take months and there can be songs that you want to use, but have to change them at the last minute.

That must be disappointing?
It's like having you heart broken. It's awful, but you have to be a pragmatist. If you can't clear it, you have to get over it. You fall in love when you find the song, then it's awful not being able to use it. There is a track that we wanted to use in Goth Cruise that I can’t name, and if we wanted to use it, it would have cost us twenty eight thousand pounds.

Greedy goths...
No, this wasn't a goth song! Also, Das Wanderlust who are one of my all time favourite bands and they’re on the Sound It Out trailer. They've been amazing and given me tracks without any singing on so I can mix it all together. They are true musicians and they’ve bought in to the film and love the shop.

 

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