AMERICAN HARDCORE: the complete interview

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*The following is an (extremely) expanded version of an interview that appears in this week’s San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush collaborated on every aspect of their new music doc, American Hardcore. “This is a two-person operation,” Blush explained as we settled into a booth at a not-very-punk-but-hey-we-were-hungry downtown San Francisco restaurant. The pair shared their thoughts on the cultural significance of hardcore music and their DIY filmmaking approach; they also meandered onto a Bay Area tangent, overlapping each other on topics like the charms of Flipper: “They were the ultimate San Francisco band in many ways. They were trashy. They were punk. They were nasty. They were arty.”

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American Hardcore director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2006.

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SS Decontrol has somethin' on their minds.
Photo from American Hardcore courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What are your backgrounds in the hardcore scene, and how did you come to collaborate on this project?

Paul Rachman: I was a college kid at Boston University in the early 80s. I really didn’t fit in perfectly. I was a little bit of an outcast. But Boston was a fun town -- you can’t imagine how many classes I missed the first semester. My roommate, Alec Peters, kind of became the first guy in Boston to really be the promoter of hardcore shows. Before he said he would do it, the bands were just doing it all themselves. I went to my first hardcore shows at the Gallery East -- it was this concrete box that was sometimes an art gallery. I saw Gang Green, the Freeze, and the FU’s, and it just kind of hit me in the stomach. It changed my life. Here was this music that was completely different. I'd never heard anything like it. It was dissonant, it was loud, and it was coming from 16-year-old angry kids from Braintree, Massachusetts. It was really intense. It just socked it to me, and I wanted more of this all the time. And I wanted to participate. So, that’s what made me pick up a Super 8 camera and start shooting; that was the beginning for me in terms of both my introduction to hardcore and me becoming a filmmaker.

Ever since those days I’ve never, ever done anything else, and I ended up committing to that lifestyle: this is who I'm gonna be, this is what I'm gonna go for, and I'm gonna try to participate in this particular way. It had those elements of the music, the state of things with Ronald Reagan, and then this intense audience, too, that was willing to participate and be there with the bands and help do the shows. It was an underground, youth-driven community that just felt right.

Steven was a promoter in Washington, DC where he was going to college. So the bands would come up the East Coast, and, you know, TSOL would play in DC, go through New York, and come to Boston, and you’d hear all the fucked-up stories of how the promoter got screwed in DC -- and that was Steven. So, we were connected like that already. We knew of each other, kind of, like that. That was the beginning. I went on to continue making films and videos, and he went on to become a music journalist, and he wrote the American Hardcore book. I wanted to make the movie, and we made the movie. In a nutshell, that was kind of it. But that was the beginning -- that’s the roots of it all, both this movie and our careers. It’s intertwined. It sucked us in.

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Henry Rollins presses the flesh at a live show.
Photo from American Hardcore by Edward Colver. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

Steven Blush: I was a college kid in Washington DC, at George Washington University. Probably was going to become a lawyer, or something. Somewhere at the end of my freshman year -- I had already been into punk, and caught a lot of it, the tail end of it, in New York -- I saw Black Flag at Nightclub 9:30, right before Henry Rollins joined the band. I met Henry, and Ian [MacKaye], and I was there, I caught this, and it just wrecked my life. Somebody had to become the promoter, so that became me. Why, I'm not really sure. So I had this connection to this whole thing. Like in the film, everybody just kind of bailed on it in the mid-80s -- it was just too much to be like that all the time, I guess. We all grew up -- that’s what happens, as it says in the film. But a decade later I'm realizing how much the subculture affected me, as to who I am today. Like, I'm the person I am because of this route that I took, and how radically different my life became because of being involved in a music scene. But I also realized that the history was totally lost. The bands were never on MTV, were never on Rolling Stone, nobody paid attention to them. I remember I would talk to people in the mid-90s, talk about hardcore, and they would tell me about incidents [at shows] I was at, that were totally wrong. Everybody had the context, who was big, what was going on -- it was like, all wrong.

That fact, in concert with the fact that I saw that History of Rock ’N’ Roll series on TV, it was like a 12-part series that was really awesome. But they go from punk straight to Nirvana, as if nothing else ever happened. And I couldn’t tell -- did they, like, not consider this real music? Did they ignore it? So all of these things kind of coincided with me, and I just decided, DIY style, just like I became a promoter, to write a book. I never fuckin’ wrote a book, you know? So I just started, and five years later it came out. I had no advance, nobody was begging for a book on Negative Approach and Void and SS Decontrol. But, I did it, and Adam Parfrey at Feral House put it out. Somewhere around that time I ran into Paul again, and like he was saying, we knew each other from the hardcore scene. I knew that he was videotaping bands. The band Gang Green was tied in with the Boston promoter, and I knew he made their video. Then he did Bad Brains’ “I Against I,” you know, so he was totally clued in there. Then he moved to Hollywood and made all the videos people still want to copy, like Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” and Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.” So, when we ran into each other right around the time the film came out, he broached me with the idea of making the film. It was a total no-brainer.

When I made the book, of course I had no idea -- I don’t even watch movies, you know what I'm saying? I was totally not clued in on that level. We made the film just like the music was made, just like how I wrote the book, even: DIY, it took five years of our lives, we paid every penny of it, we shot every segment of it. [Paul] did like every aspect of the film, from the first shot to the last edit. I literally held the boom, I did the sound because I was the only other person there. I did the interviews and held the boom.

PR: It was an instant vision. I instantly knew what the film should be. It needed to be this kind of visceral, first-person account -- no narrator, no experts here. Because hardcore didn’t have that. You didn’t listen to anybody. Nobody explained to you how to do anything. You didn’t want that around, and the film had to reflect that. So it was this documentary in its rawest, purest form: let your subject tell its story. We shot 120 interviews and it was about culling the story out of that. Steven’s book is incredibly detailed, and the creativity you can put into editing a book -- you have a little more control over that. You can move sentences and words. When you shoot a film, you can’t make people talk a certain way. It may not fit the perfect chronologies or anything. The thing was, let the film be this first-person account of these stories. We don’t know what they’re gonna be, because we’re going out not with a list of questions, but just have these conversations. There was gonna be this intimacy. And then coupling that with the old footage and the photos, but then this incredibly non-music. This dissonant sound. That was gonna tell the story. It was gonna be this ball of compressed energy that has this intense subtext. That was it. That’s what I was feeling in me. The fact that I felt that way about it, I knew that I could live with this for however long it takes. The luxury of digital filmmaking should really be, like, patience -- you take as much time as you want, because you can own this stuff. Not, like, oh, we can make this documentaries in four weeks instead of eight, with these cheap little cameras. That’s the wrong process of what independent filmmaking is. That’s what we did. We really just took our time.

The fact that it finished around now was inevitably kind of a good coincidence. It ended when it should and it feels right. So having that patience was great, because you allow the film to talk back to you, you know. It’s not so headstrong, like, OK, we gotta do this and tell this and tell this. We kind of mulled through the editing process and that made it a little more intimate. I feel really lucky as a filmmaker to have had this way of being able to work with this material, which is like me going back to the first things I ever shot, when I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. But, after going through the last 20 years of making videos, and making a movie in Hollywood, and all the structure, and beautiful lighting, and beautiful mixing -- this has none of that. Hardcore was not beautifully lit. It was not beautifully mixed.

Real life isn’t like that either, and it was such a relief and an incredible freedom to throw all that stuff away. There are no rules. It doesn’t matter, because now I can take this 20 years of experience and apply it to rawness. You know -- make it really raw, but it’s gonna be really good raw, because that’s how hardcore was. It was raw and stripped-down, but it was good. At least we felt that way. The result of the process on this film was unique in that sense. It was kind of like the ethic of what the movement was, the ethic of what our environment was, now applied to this film 25 years later. And it kind of helped with the energy of the film.

SFBG: Had you shot a lot of the old performance footage that was used in the film?

PR: Maybe like 30 percent of the footage -- a lot of the Bad Brains stuff is mine, in terms of the black and white film, the Super 8 film, Gang Green, DOA, the Negative FX kind of riot footage that happened before the Mission of Burma show. So a lot of that of mine. But it was really hard to find 1980, ’81, ’82. That stuff is rare. This is like, the beginning of home video. Kids don’t have these three thousand dollar cameras or whatever it was then. But they were around. We found the guy who would shoot all the shows in Philly, and he would stand in back of the room or to the side of the stage. And he had these VHS tapes -- the original camera masters of these VHS tapes that are shot in eight-hour mode, or six-hour ELP mode. So there’s like 17 or 15 shows on one tape. That’s half a year archived on this one VHS tape. And that’s what we found. That’s what’s in the movie, and that’s what it was. We kind of created the archive for this, inevitably, because you can’t go to the Library of Congress or Google or stock footage houses and go, “Black Flag, 1982. Boston, Massachusetts.”

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The original Dirty South: North Carolina's own Corrosion of Conformity.
Photo from American Hardcore by Skizz. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

SFBG: How did you decide what to include in the film? Obviously, you couldn’t cover everything that’s in the book, which has so much information in it.

PR: I think the process of telling the story in the first person, from these people, dictated a little bit of the structure. Steven’s book was the road map in terms of the chronology. I don’t think any of us could have ever put it in that context. He really spent five years writing the book, too, before making the movie. So, the picking was about telling the story. Ninety percent of the film is people who have never been in a rock movie, or a documentary. These peoples’ lives have not been documented. So that dictated it a little bit too.

SFBG: How did you decide which parts of the country to feature?

PR: Well, it’s American Hardcore. It’s not New York Hardcore or San Francisco and Los Angeles Hardcore. It’s American Hardcore. So, Steven’s book really explains how it spread through America. That was important that the film be that. It becomes this piece of American subculture history of a movement by kids, for kids, about kids that spread through the country because there was this intense audience that wanted to make it so.

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Articles of Faith spread the good word.
Photo from American Hardcore by Gail Butensky. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

SFBG: Were there any artists who refused to participate? Anyone who’s missing that you wish you could have included?

PR: Yeah, there’s a few people. There was a timing situation. We’d go on the road at certain times and we couldn’t hook up with everybody and we didn’t have unlimited funds. When we got into [the 2006 Sundance Film Festival], we had to finish the film. The most obvious person is Jello Biafra. We offered Jello plenty of opportunities, and I was a huge Dead Kennedys fan. Huge. When the Dead Kennedys came to town, you knew where you were gonna be that night. You wouldn’t want to miss it. But, I had a series of emails with Jello and he kind of wavered: “Yes, I will do it.” “No, I won’t.” He’s had some difficulties with his band, so maybe if we got Jello we might not get the music. It was just this one situation that presented a problem. There were no other problems on the film. I gave him a perfect platform -- anything he wanted, however he wanted to do it. And he turned us down. And I understand that. I understand where he’s coming from. And he’s had a past relationship with Steven: he likes the book, he doesn’t like the book. There’s just issues.

The thing is, if we’d continued shooting for another year, we may have gotten him. It might have gone back again before we finished the film. But all of a sudden the film had to be finished fast. And I couldn’t afford to put the film in a position where it was gonna be more in control by this guy who might want to do it but is being difficult. Or, should I keep on trying to get him before I finish? I didn’t want the film to be hostage to that. I think we’ve told this national story, I think it’s obvious to the hardcore fans that they’re not in there. Some of them might understand why they’re not in there, you know, understanding the band. It’s a shame. Listen, I'd give him the opportunity now if he wants to be part of the DVD extras and reflect on it. I really set out to make a film that I think he would like, because of the undercurrents in the film. The political stuff, the state of America, and the state of being one of these people truly, and it’s a first-person account. I'm not trying to put my opinion in there. Steven isn’t putting his opinion in there of what was, how it should be. There’s none of that. You know, we’re fans, we’d like him to be in the film. We feel he should be in the film. We also understand his decision. But, you know, I feel the film is complete.

SB: There’s two bands you will not see in American Hardcore: Dead Kennedys and the Misfits. With both bands there’s a real problem between the singer and the other band members. You have the singer who hates the old band members, and the old band members are dragging the name through the mud. The names “The Misfits” and “Dead Kennedys” as they tour today are an embarrassment. It was like, if you work with one, you couldn’t work with the other. We just had to bail out of that situation. Ultimately, this is the story of a culture. It’s the story of a scene and a community. There were no stars in hardcore. We wanted every single person, but ultimately, it’s the story of the community and the ethic and the scene. But people get older, they move on, their lives change. We’ll deal with that. But we did extend the offer to everybody. At a certain point, if they don’t come through, you have to move on.

PR: A lot of the greatest bands, and some of the most important artists in the film are the most turmoiled. There’s Bad Brains -- they have their difficulties. But all of that stuff is forgiven, it means nothing, when you see them or hear them.

SFBG: The people who are in the film all have such big personalities. Did that make it easier to conduct your interviews?

SB: Why we have such good interviews with everyone is because they’re very comfortable with us. We’re not just some camera crew. They know who we are. Half those people crashed on my couch or at Paul’s roommate’s house. So that’s what it goes back to. It’s like, even if you don’t remember the guy you could go “Hey, remember that show?” And everything’s fine. We realized with this film what an onus it’s been to get the history right. This is like a lost chapter of history.

SFBG: And hardcore’s artists and fans are so protective of it.

SB: They believe in it so passionately. They don’t want another bullshit thing done on their music. And we had the trust of everybody. I might have been the only person who could get Minor Threat on a Sony Pictures Classics deal. It’s because I booked Minor Threat shows as a kid, and I think I’ve always been straight with Ian, and he’s a stand-up guy. He understood what we were doing and understood our belief in this. That’s how we were able to pull all this stuff off. The past few days have been the premieres, the New York and LA premieres, where virtually everybody in the film has now seen it. And there was not one bad comment. These are really intense motherfuckers. Guys you do not want to fuck with were only happy.

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Enjoying the scene back in the day: "Guys you do not want to fuck with."
Photo from American Hardcore by Fred Burger. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

SFBG: The film makes a point of contextualizing hardcore music, in terms of what was going on in America during the early to mid-1980s.

PR: This is that generation that fell through the cracks. We weren’t boomers, we weren’t Gen X-ers. Reagan’s coming in with all these phony new ideas, so let’s be 1950s. Carter’s going out. This is an untold story.

SFBG: Do you hope that people who aren’t hardcore fans will see the movie, and what do you think they’ll take away from it?

PR: We made it for that accessibility. We’ve been told, “I knew nothing about this music, and now I understand.” Older people, younger kids. In particular I think a lot of kids -- young kids, 15 or 16 years old, who are really looking back at this music for inspiration, I think a lot of them have this romantic view of, like, “Oh, it must have been so cool to be at a Minor Threat show. It must have been so cool to be at the early Black Flag shows.” And it wasn’t cool. It was hard. It was kind of dangerous. It was not this kind of easy life that you were able to simply participate in. I think this film will set it straight, that you really have to commit to something. Have no fear. Don’t be afraid of your mistakes. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Stick to your gut instinct. Trust that. And do it, against all odds, obstacles at every corner -- doesn’t matter. You surmount them. And you commit. And most importantly, this movement really taught you to never give up. You don’t give up: you can’t get the show here, you’re gonna find another place. You just don’t give up. And I think that’s something that I hope kids or everybody walks out of American Hardcore and goes, you know, “What the hell happened? Why aren’t we like this anymore? Why don’t we have this youth gone wild that we really, really need, now more than ever?”

I go back to that theory that you really need several elements to be in perfect sync. You need that kind of political element, however simple it might be, of some kind of government -- in this case Reagan -- who you could, like, “We don’t want that! We’re against all that!” And you need this kind of new voice, this new music comes along, and you need the audience. And that syncs up, and boom -- you energize the youth. I just don’t think you have that right now. We could tear down the wall and make that difference; kids today gotta blow up like ten walls and be really, really obnoxious and mean about it, because it’s harder to have that kind of impact. The corporations set out to co-opt lifestyles and sell it back to our youth. They set out to do that in the early 1980s, and in 25 years they’ve succeeded so well. Too well. Everybody’s boxed in. You can’t really scream loud and somebody directly hear it. It doesn’t happen that way. Everything is like, “Oh, shoot ‘em an email.” That’s the difference. I really want people to walk out and go, “Something’s not right anymore. We need this.” Because it’s really important. The whole world is better if we have more of that.

SB: Yeah, American Hardcore is a rock film. But it really isn’t. It really is about youth culture. It’s a testament to the power of youth, about what you can achieve against all odds. Because these bands had nothing. They had no resources, no talent, no hot look. They had nothing to fall back on except their conviction. So it is kind of a clarion call to kids to say, you know, seize the moment. Take off the iPod. Log off mySpace and get with it.

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Live fast die young.
Photo from American Hardcore by Edward Colver. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. Copyright 2002 CTB Film Company.

American Hardcore opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

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