Justin McConnell – "Working Class Rock Star"
Interviewed by EvilG
"Working Class Rock Star" is a must see documentary for anyone in a band, anyone who wants to be in a band, or fans interested in what most bands go though. I was given the opportunity to talk to the brains behind this new documentary, Justin McConnell.
Justin, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your newest DVD/documentary release "Working Class Rock Star". The obvious question to begin with is why did you make this film and when did the initial ideas on what it would be take shape?
Making the film was a path of discovery for me. I started out my career making independent music videos and commercials for major labels, and in that I was given a great exposure to both sides of the fence, so to speak. Originally I set out to make a documentary on indie musicians, more the bar band level, but the more artists I worked with the more I came across a similar trend: bands that have labels but are still broke, not supported, etc. At that point, mid 2004, the idea started to change, and gradually became what WORKING CLASS ROCK STAR is. In a lot of ways the film was shaped in the end by the interview answers and information I dug up while shooting. The fun of documentary, I suppose, is how it changes right along with life. It’s never the same film you started out with.
What kinds of feedback have you heard so far from fans, bands, and labels?
So far the feedback has been pretty good. I’ve had the odd person tell me how they think the film could be better, but I have yet to come across someone who hated the film. In general I know it has problems in areas…. well, not problems exactly, but limits I had given that the entire flick was essentially paid out of pocket with minimum investment, shot when I could between jobs, and really didn’t have money for anything that a larger doc would. It’s very grassroots, but maybe more alive because of that.
This comes off as being very professionally done, not something slapped together by an amateur. How much other stuff have you done and is this your first foray into making a documentary?
I’ve been making EPK and mini-documentaries for years. I made DVDs for bands like Dog Fashion Disco (3 now), Tub Ring, Bloodshoteye, and am currently working on the Summer Slaughter 2008 DVD (also did 2007). I also edit/shoot broadcast TV programs, and tons of corporate/commercial work to pay the bills. In general I have been at this for about 10 years. It may have mainly been me behind the lens (there are a few camera operators that I definitely thank for their help), but you can pull off pretty good quality if you know enough about what you are doing.
It’s very cool that along with Sam Dunn, we Canadians now have another Canadian filmmaker who has put together a high end product like this. Do you have plans to perhaps work on another heavy metal related documentary?
I’m already shooting my newest documentary. It’s called SKULL WORLD, something I’m shooting over the next year or so. Have about 15 hours of footage in the can so far. It’s not directly related to the metal scene, exactly, but it’s subject is the very definition of metal. I’m following a man named Greg Sommer around through a year of his life. He’s the guy, "Skull Man", who made the PIT FILES mini-doc (it’s a special feature on the Working Class DVD). Really interesting character, knows a number of well-respected metal bands. It’s going to be a fun doc, I think. There are so many aspects to his character that will make for compelling viewing. Plus he runs the Canadian chapter of "Box Wars", which people just need to see to understand (www.boxwars.tv). It’s going to be a study of a fringe character trying to create a scene, make a name, while pursuing something even further outside the mainstream than metal. And keeping it metal the whole time.
Please tell our readers a bit of background on just who Justin McConnell is beginning with where are you from?
Born in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Moved to a small town called Haliburton when I was 5, lived there for 15 years. One of those towns where your options are get creative, get pregnant, get drunk/high, or all of the above. Kind of drove me to the love of film. Moved to Toronto for school in 2000.
How did you get involved in the music business?
I’ve always been drawn toward the music scene, and when I hit Toronto I started going to clubs and checking out bands in Toronto that not everyone had heard of. Internet really opened up a lot of that…. sites like mp3.com allowing you to find local bands, check them out, then go see them. I started going to club shows, and around the same time I got a job making commercials through a 3rd-party company for a few of the major labels. I just started getting to love the bands, and then wanted to make my name in music videos. I got my first video on MuchMusic in 2003, and have had maybe 10 on the air since then. No real money in it, but it all helps. In any case, it all gave me both sides of the coin, dealing with bands on the ground floor and marketing departments of majors. You start to see trends, and notice how the business changes and was changing. WORKING CLASS was an idea that just had to happen.
When and how did you get into heavy metal?
Hard question. You ask your average metalhead they’ll say "I was born metal". I think it’s kind of true. I’ve always liked heavy music, except for a short period of time when I was super young and listed to Vanilla Ice & MC Hammer. I’m not even sure what bands first started me out. Maybe Guns N’ Roses, way back. Then things got progressively harder from there. Now I like all types, as long as it’s good. I’m big into the avante garde stuff especially, artists like Mike Patton, DFD, Screaming Mechanical Brain, Tub Ring, etc. I branch out though, I’m not just metal. Lots of great music out there, if you open your mind to it. I even had a band for a couple of years in Toronto, Heavily Medicated. Got to open for Strapping Young Lad, which was great (until I broke my wrist very badly 1 week later).
What are your favourite bands?
I listen to so much. Like I said I’m a Patton fan, have a huge respect for guys like Dog Fashion Disco. Longtime fan of Opeth, Iron Maiden, a lot of the Swedish stuff. But I listen to so much. Lately I’ve been digging Yakuza and Devin Townsend’s great Ziltoid: The Omniscient CD. But that could all change tomorrow.
You don’t personally appear in or narrate the documentary (unless you are the skull guy from the bonus features? Ha!) is there a reason for that?
I’m not the Skull guy. I’m going to answer the question with a question. Is there anything that I can say that can’t be said better by the interview subjects in the film? If you get the DVD, my voice is there, but in the editing. As much as you might think this is an attack piece, I tried to remain as objective as possible, and my own narration felt out of place. That said, there’s a feature length commentary on the DVD, so if you want to hear my voice, by all means. I do feel narration may have helped set up the overall scene better to people approaching the documentary with no past knowledge, but as difficult as it is to say, I didn’t make the film for those people. I made it primarily for artists and musicians, a tool to help them. I know of lots that have seen it with no prior knowledge and loved it, however, so hopefully I made it accessible enough.
Describe to us what your role as filmmaker is for this documentary. Did you hold the camera, conduct the interviews, arrange everything? How much of a team effort was this?
The actual filmmaking itself is 90% me. Obviously every one of the subjects were a huge help. They let me into their homes, fed me, gave me rides. Tons of people helped make this flick, and most of them are on screen. In general though I sought out and booked all the interviews (with the help of certain great PR companies I approached), shot most of the footage, did most of the editing. This was very much me out with a camera on the road, doing my own sound even (which is why in some cases it leaves a little to be desired). I just didn’t have the budget for more. There were a few camera operators, my regular guys, Tom, Greg (the same Greg), who helped too. Once the film was done I have to thank Noel from Inertia Entertainment for the amazing amount of support he gave it. And I can’t forget Rob Kleiner, who worked hard on the great original score.
One thing that I think is missing from the story is the other side – by that I mean, the record labels. The overwhelming message is that the music industry and the labels are ass raping artists. However, there is another side to the story where there are bands who made it because of the hard work of people at a label getting their CD’s distributed and getting the band’s covered in the magazines etc? Did you try to interview any representatives from the metal record labels like Metal Blade, Nuclear Blast, SPV, Century Media, Roadrunner, etc?
There’s another side to every story. Yes, the answer is yes. Bands do make it with the help of their label, but those bands sit on an entire other level. They are the top percentile that end up getting enough focus from their label to really make a name. But marketing is a tricky thing, it doesn’t always work. Even some of the bands in the film get great support from their label. Problem is, that isn’t the point. It’s huge business launching and making a band, advertising costs tons, and a band can get huge in the public’s eye. This doesn’t mean the band is actually making any money beyond the perks. And the market is so fickle that a drop in popularity can mean the band is out on their ass, broke and back trying to earn a living working at a fast food place. The market is highly oversaturated to the point where it won’t sustain itself much longer, and this upcoming recession is only going to make it harder. The film is warning musicians of the overall commitment that they will have to put in, and how serious they really have to be – and that it may not pay off in any way in the end. You need to live for the music, not the cash. It’s not there for most musicians.
I did pursue interviews with major label reps. I have one on camera with A&R at one of the big Canadian majors. I had another set up and ready to shoot, gear in hand, before the plug was pulled. In every case these reps were asked to honour their NDA agreements and not talk to me. I wish I could have had the other side, but at a certain point you decide to take a perspective, and this film is from the artists on the ground, the musicians themselves. Many of them are knowledgable, and their message is mixed. It’s definitely not an attack on labels, more than a warning of what the label structure has become: bloated, a minefield, and something to be approached with all the knowledge you can.
If you do want the label side, I recently discovered another film is being made focusing on just the label side of things: BEHIND THE SUIT & TIE. Should make a good companion piece to WORKING CLASS ROCK STAR. Will be interesting to see where things cross and conflict.
You have an impressive range of well-known musicians on the DVD such as Randall Blyth from Lamb of God, Dave Brockie from Gwar and Frank Marino from Mohagany Rush. Was it hard to get some of the musicians who are still on labels to talk openly about the music industry? Did any bands flat out turn you down for fear of repercussions?
I had a number of musicians say no, some of my favorite musicians, to be honest. I won’t mention names, but there were many reasons for the ‘no’. METAL: A HEADBANGER’S JOURNEY was shooting at the same time as a lot of my interviews and in a few cases I got a ‘no’ because the band had just shot an interview with ‘the other Toronto metal doc’ (as it was called at the time). In some they were just winding down the tour and were too tired for more press. For the most part the replies I got were polite. In general, most musicians I approached said yes…. and in some cases I was approached and the email got lost. I missed out on a couple of great artists because of that.
How did you decide to make the story follow the bands Tub Ring, Bloodshoteye, and Three Mile Scream?
Different reasons. At a certain point I knew I had to choose a finite number of bands to focus on to really make the main story work. I chose Bloodshoteye first, because I’d just finished making a music video with them, they were building in their career, and they had a really interesting human story behind the band. Tub Ring came next, and I was given great access to the band in exchange for some free shooting servies on their upcoming DVD. They had a 12 year career when I first started shooting them, were more established, and came across as the more experienced veterans. I was going to also follow Dog Fashion Disco, who in many ways inspired the film, but by then I had just shot 2 full DVDs for them and I wanted some new scenery, shooting wise. 3 Mile Scream was last, and I caught them just as they were trying to get signed. I saw potential, figured they’d probably get signed while I was shooting (which they did), and took a chance. Their story continued to be interesting long after I finished shooting, with Matt taking over from Lord Worm in Cryptopsy.
Were these 3 bands the first bands you approached for this project or did some of them not want to provide such open access?
They weren’t the first. I was considering about 10 bands, and narrowed it down to those three. There was a band in Ottawa, Kenowa, who would have been a great human story, plus Mod Flanders Conspiracy from the US, who I was considering briefly. And of course DFD, who I didn’t shoot for the reasons stated above.
One of the things that really puts this DVD over the top is the intimate look at the bands and their lives. This was especially the case with Bloodshoteye when we get to see the guitarist/vocalist?s home life, family, their daughter, etc. Was is hard to make these people feel that comfortable for you to be brought into their lives like that?
I had a decent friendship established with Bloodshoteye before I started shooting them. I’d imagine it wasn’t exactly comfortable, cameras make most people uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I was treated great and they really brought me into their life. Just great people all around… but you find that out about most of these artists. There are tons of great people in the metal scene.
Since filming the DVD, one of the bands, Three Mile Scream, has fallen apart. Are you surprised? Or are you surprised by how long they or any of the bands you spoke to have slugged it out?
3 MILE fell apart for a lot of reasons. I can’t comment on anything specifically, it’s not my place. But with Matt joining Cryptopsy, and their entire original lineup from the film, short of Norm & Alex leaving the band by the time I was done editing, I can’t say I’m surprised. They are great guys, and they will keep going in their careers. Matt is travelling the world right now touring, and I know Mike has a new band, and will keep at it. Music is in his bloodline. A few of the bands I interviewed have broken up since the film was done, but that’s just the way the market works. It’s a tough business, and after hitting your head against a brick wall repeatedly sometimes you just have to give up and walk away.
Did you realize how bitter or how dismayed many artists are with the situation BEFORE you set out to make the documentary?
Not entirely, no. I learned as I shot. Some were more negative than others, but like with anything in life, that all depends on personal experience.
Are you surprised at the general public’s, and perhaps some bands, naivety surrounding what it means to be signed or to be a "rock star"?
It’s not surprising, that was the image given to us by the media in general. That lifestyle does still exist, to an extent, with the top percentile of artists. But in general since the excesses of the 80s the entire imagery has been fuelled by the image of what it means to be a rock star, and not what it means to be a musician. People write music as an extention of their cock in hopes they’ll get to fuck the one that got away in high school, and the stereotype continues. 3 cords and a cool haircut can make you a superstar for a few months, but what substance does it have? It’s what seperates the true artists from those after the lifestyle. Most of the people in my doc, like them or hate them, are true artists. Some may hop on trends from time to time, but you either hop on a trend or make a trend, or you sink.All most people are exposed to is the do or die excess of the big label world shoved down our throats, and it becomes what is expected. Look at most hip hop videos lately… they are the new rock stars. The cars, the girls, etc. – but the average person can’t detatch that image enough to realize that those were all rented for the video, and have to returned after two days of shooting. It all goes in, and the average person can’t seperate the fact from the fiction.
Another message that people will get from this film is that being in a band is not all glamorous and bands that tour the world and sell lots of albums are very often ‘working class’ or sometimes even worse off with no money and a lot of debt. With that in mind, what in your opinion needs to change? If there were no labels or middle men, how would a new band make it? Do you have any suggestions for a brighter future or do you only see doom and gloom?
In my experience the best person you can rely upon to make things happen for you is yourself. Education is my #1 suggestion. Learn the difference between net and gross points. Learn the pitfalls some people fall into. I am in no way saying labels don’t work, because they do… but you have to be smart about it. Fight for your music, even if you think you have no power. Really evaluate what you want out of the game, and go about it realistically. The labels won’t disappear, and in most cases they are still your best chance of wider distribution and exposure…. but you have to know it all comes at a price.
Even in trying to get this documentary distributed I was told that I stood a better chance of making more money if I pressed the DVD myself and sold it online… more per unit price. In the end I went with a larger distributor.. because I asked myself a question: is money or the message more important? It was the message to me, and Cinema Epoch has helped me put the disc in stores all over North America…. something I couldn’t do on my own. I’m making less directly per copy, but this is the beginning of my career, not the end, and right now the exposure is more important.
In the new economy though, money is hard to come by. Most bands won’t make it. It’s just a fact. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy what you do, get to tour and write the music you love. Just have to look at it realistically. You might be the next big thing, or you might be just respected. In 50 years, what is worth more to you? I have no solid answers, because every solution is individual. I wish there were solid answers.. but it’s the wild west out there. May the best band win.
Do you think the industry as it is now could very well be preventing what could be the next Black Sabbath or the next Metallica from emerging because bands have to be so business savvy or because many musicians with the talent and drive to make something groundbreaking are completely disillusioned with the music industry?
Sure, lots of great artists go unheard. But there are so many bands now I don’t think the next Black Sabbath of the next Metallica is even possible. I’m talking real legends, people that started a movement. Not in the metal scene as it stands today. People might argue that with me, citing their favorite band…. but it isn’t about how good the music is. It’s about change, it’s about revolution. Those legends are legends because they created something new, and until the next big thing really comes and changes everything, we just won’t see it. That’s kind of a ‘what if’ question though, which in general are pointless to everyday life. What if the next Iron Maiden goes unsung? Well, then some other band will take their place.
What advice would you give to a new band looking to make it beyond "watch this DVD" and as Devin Townsend says in the film, "bring your own lube because your gonna get ass fucked regardless"? ha!
Just try and be smart. Use knowledge as a weapon. This DVD is a door opening, and there are many other places to go and get this info. Talk to the bands themselves, they will talk to you… the fans make them. Track down Decline of the Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years. Search the net, learn everything you can. Network, network with everyone. If you really have the drive the knowledge will build as you do. And don’t sweat a mistake, or if you get fucked over. Choose your battles, because you never know what’s coming tomorrow. All you can do is try.
The closing words, if any, are yours…thanks for your time and thanks for the great documentary!
Hepto-Machrophelia. Thank you as well.