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DIY or Die: An Interview With Keith Schieron and Tim Irwin, We Jam Econo

[by Scott Thill]

The Minutemen remain one of the sharpest, smartest and most energetic punk practitioners from a brutalized 1980s that with each passing day is increasingly looked upon as some halcyon period for American conservatism. But while Ronald Reagan became a saint for the neoconservative establishment that is helping engineer the imminent demise of the American Dream, a Big Lie laid bare by these blue-collar heroes from San Pedro from their first blistering musical effort to their more accesible last, he nevertheless continues to haunt the dreams of every punker, progressive and positivist in the nation, if not the world. And yes, that was him trying to gun down Boon, Watt and Hurley in the canonical video for "This Ain't No Picnic."

So it was with unbridled happiness that those like Morphzm, and countless others who look so fondly (and suspiciously) back on the punk, art and hip-hop movements that sprouted from Reagan's draconian rule, greeted the released of a documentary devoted to the perservering smartass spirit of The Minutemen, who are more than overdue for their moment in the musical legend spotlight. Forget that Knoxville and his band of self-stapling jackasses lifted the strains of "Corona" to serve as the sonic signature of their MTV hit show, or that Watt has survived the loss of Boon by becoming the go-to guy for everyone from J. Mascis to Iggy and the Stooges.

Instead, consider The Minutemen to be, unlike the other bands that achieved more exposure or survived the band's disintegration to only break up their own bands and go Hollywood with a vengeance, the definitive true-school punkers that all others should aspire to become. That is Morphizm's premise, and we're sticking to it. If you can find a hungrier, tighter, finer band that attacked the staus quo with smackdowns lasting rarely over two minutes, please let us know.

Morphizm: Why did you decide to make this film?
Keith Schieron: They sounded so interesting, and they looked so normal. They wore normal clothes and didn't look like rock stars at all. They were just normal dudes who could have been your neighbors. And I had never heard anything like The Punch Line before. I felt like I got it, even though I couldn't explain it, which was an unusual feeling to have for a 15-year-old. But I felt like I was on the inside, that everything made total sense. It was a life-changing event. So one day at school, I run into Tim in our video production class, and he's playing a skate video with "I Felt Like a Gringo." And that's when we first decided that it would be a great idea to make a Minutemen documentary.
Tim Irwin: For me, it was ideal. In addition to being so inspired by their music, I thought that this would be story that would inspire folks to go out and do the things they've always wanted to do. That was a big drive. The band was so motivating. And yeah, they weren't interested in fitting in at all. They used the territory and climate of the time to carve out their own existence. They weren't interested in following the bands that came before them, although they were honest about who influenced them. They brought their own elements into the work.

Morphizm: So how did it all come together?
KS: It started out partially as a joke in school, because we would grab all these underground videos of Black Flag, The Dickies, Dead Kennedys and other bands, but we never could find anything on The Minutemen. So we thought it would be a great idea to make our own, and that's where the seed was planted. And as time progressed, my answer to the question "What is the one film you've always wanted to make?" was always the same: a Minutemen documentary. Ten years pass, and I haven't really kept in touch with Tim. He had moved to Utah and I had moved to Boston. Once we caught up and chatted for awhile, I found out that he was making films and action sports documentaries, so the proposition came up again. So we made a pact and went for it; it took us three years after that to get it done, but we finally did it.

Morphizm: It seemed timely in the sense that it's hit the screen 20 years after Boon's death.
KS: To be totally honest, it was never meant to have anything to do with the anniversary of D. Booon's death. It just turned out that way, because I had just bumped into Tim after not seeing him for so long. There was nothing in our mind about having the film coincide with the 20th anniversary of Boon's death or, for that matter, the 25th anniversary of the band's formation. The first reason we made it is because we wanted to see it. We knew that footage as out there and we wanted to see it. Secondly, The Minutemen were so incredibly inspiring to so many people. They've become such a part of our lives that we forget that they are influencing us, whether we're painting our houses or dealing with our relationships. It's been embedded in us for years. And it's a huge credit to Mike Watt for saying yes to the project. I think that he perhaps saw that the band inspired us to make this film to such an extent that Watt ignored the fact that there were professional filmmakers that could have perhaps done a more polished and stylized job. But I'm eternally grateful that Watt saw something in us and gave us the chance to make the film. I know this sounds like a cliche, but I wake up every day happy to have been involved in this. It's a 15-year-old fantasy come true.

Morphizm: What do you think the band's impact has been in terms of raising political awareness over the last couple of decades?
KS: It's hard to say what it is to other people, but to me it was a lot. Combined with other bands at the time like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and The Clash, The Minutemen and their songs opened your eyes and made you want to search out information. There's a great line in the movie from the journalist Chris Morris that argues that the Minutemen were political without being didactic. They never told you how to think, just to think.

Morphizm: And they tended to do it short attacks.
TI: Absolutely. Those guys ran a tight ship. There was no room for screwing around. And they had to be accountable for everything, or else they weren't going to make any money at the end of the tour.
KS: I can't remember who wrote this, but some article in a music magazine said something along the lines of, "If the three-minute standard pop song is a sentence, then The Minutemen's short blasts of energy are just exclamation points." That's what the early Minutemen songs meant to me.

Morphizm: How did you get all the interview subjects involved and were they excited to be part of it?
KS: There were a couple things we did. We originally sent Watt a list of people who we figured should probably be interviewed, and you can imagine who they were -- guys from Black Flag, Saccharine Trust and the like. Watt would then let us know who he had contact information for and who he didn't, but then he would send us other people who he thought would be interested, including some local Pedro folks that the band went to high school with. I literally found people through their websites. This is my first film, but Tim has done a few and, according to him, he's never been involved with something like this film, where every single person bent over backward to help us.
TI: That blew me away. I've been making documentaries for awhile now. I remember on our first trip to L.A., Keith called and told me we had 14 interviews lined up, and I figured we'd be lucky to walk away with seven of them. And we went home with 17 interviews after that trip, more than we had scheduled. I couldn't believe it. With very few exceptions, it was like that the whole way through. It's because everyone involved had enormous respect for the band, because The Minutemen were so special. I mean, of course we were asked first if it was an official thing, if Watt was behind it. But once we said yes, then they were all down for sure. That was the stamp of approval. We always felt privileged that so much trust was placed in us, because it's such an important story. I'm just so honored that Watt let us do it.

Morphizm: It's hard to find someone who can say no to The Minutemen.
KS: I've never met so many incredible people in my life, and I never had a negative run-in with anyone on this project. We'd go to people's houses and they'd invite us in and make sandwiches. It seems funny looking back, but it was a sweet, wonderful gesture. When Tim worked on his extreme sports films, he said he'd feel exceedingly successful if he rounded up two or more interviews in one weekend. Our first weekend in L.A., I set up 19 interviews and we got all of them done. Everyone showed up and they were all nice to us. And that's how it was for the entire project. Everyone we called stopped what they were doing to help us make this film. It was an incredible outpouring of goodwill.

Morphizm: What about the genere explorations in their musical output? The Minutemen seemed to be as enamored of funk and jazz as they were of punk and AOR.
KS: I think people were definitely blown away by it. One of the things that Watt talked about, which I hoped we got across in the film, is that even though they were punks, The Minutemen weren't interested in sounding like anyone else. Take the initial five bands on SST, for example: The Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, Black Flag, Saccharine Trust and Husker Du. They didn't sound alike, but their first releases all seemed to be coming from the same place. Yet very quickly, all of them developed disticnt sounds completely unlike each other. And The Minutemen were invested in that mentality; they wanted to create a sound that was all their own.

Morphizm: What do you think Boon would think about our times today, compared to the times he was living in?
TI: One of the things that many poeple have commented on, and one of the things I was thinking while I was editing the film, is that much of The Minutemen's music is timeless. If you listen to some of their contemporaries from the period, it's good music but it's also somewhat dated. That doesn't happen with The Minutemen's work. As far as the political environment of the band's time and that of our own.

Morphizm: When everyone's rich and comfortable, the music sucks.
TI: Yeah, well it's hard to climb above all that comfort to create something interesting.

Morphizm: And they were always interested in working toward something, to make a difference.
TI: I totally agree, and that brings us back to the ideals I was talking about in the beginning.

Morphizm: Everyone seems to be happy that this film was finally made.
IT: Everything we've heard has been positive. I was so nervous at the Pedro screening; I was in the bathroom ready to puke before the movie started. But it was an amazing response. I knew that we needed to do it there first, to get the hometown approval before we took it anywhere else. If they hated it, then we were going to go somewhere remote, dig a hole, bury the thing and then disappear. But thankfully it hasn't worked out that way. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Morphizm: Which says something about the band's community-building abilities after all these years. Their music seems to foster a spirit of connectivity, while other punk bands often influence a sense of nihilism or isolation.
KS: I coulnd't agree more. Over and over, we heard how nice and ordinary the band was. No one harbored any ill will toward them.

August 17, 2006

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