Going Out

CULTURE: The Birdman Chronicles explores success, obscurity, and passion (according to John Westhaver)

By DAYANTI KARUNARATNE

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From time to time, Ottawa Magazine gets approached with projects that are so unique, or creatively challenging, or represent some interesting and important aspect of the city, that we can’t turn them away. So what if they don’t fit into a specific department of the magazine or website! This website can be a time-sucking beast, but it lets us have fun sometimes — like when Ottawa-based filmmaker Alex Griffith reached out about his short doc on  John Westhaver of Birdman Sound, host of CKCU “Morning Cartunes”, and drummer for The Band Whose Name is a Symbol (TBWNIAS).

Full disclosure: my husband is a big fan of this band. (Me? Seems I’m always stuck at home with our kid on concert nights.) Either way, at first glance I thought this film would simply be something for the two of us to enjoy.

But as I watched it, I realized it spoke to a question I have long asked about musicians: why join a band? Not being a musician myself I can see how this question might come off as completely ignorant, but really — when work, family, and other obligations start to clutter the schedule, what motivates musicians to come together and practice, fine-tune songs, plan concerts, the whole bit? Looks like a lot of work.

But The Birdman Chronicles gave me some insight. Whether or not you’re in a band, it’s worth checking out.

Below the vid, a Q&A with the filmmaker about his decision to focus on Westhaver and  what he learned by making film.

Ottawa Mag: How did you decide to create a doc that focused on John Westhaver?

Alex Griffith: Two things: first I wanted to create a documentary, period. That was what I told myself: “You’re going to make a documentary. Secondly, find someone interesting.”

I had visited John’s store a lot and had long conversations with him. He has such a great voice, I mean both sonically and content-wise. Early on I knew I wanted to film him. The trouble was focusing on one aspect – should I drill him about underground music? About the punk scene in New Brunswick? But in the interest of speaking to a broad audience – for better or for worse – I went with his take on ‘success.’

John has carved out a niche for himself – record shop, radio show, drummer in two to three bands at any given time – and seemed eminently self-fulfilled.

OM: What did you learn about music/bands while making this film?

AG: It’s pretty well accepted by everyone (except 20-year old-musicians) that making  it in a band is a steep proposition. That’s why they say, “music is a young person’s game.” You need that lack of responsibility, and perhaps lack of realism, to get into it.

Nonetheless, I discovered a whole group of people, folks in their thirties and up, who love to play and create music. Some work for the government, others like John made a living closer to the industry, but all of them spent their free time being very serious about following artists and contributing to the art.

OM: What, if anything, surprised you about John and his take on music?

AG: His knowledge was staggering, like getting happily lost in the Louvre. He kept bringing up people, “you know these guys, the “New Bomb Turks?”, and I’d nod just to get him to keep talking. The Birdman Chronicles could spawn so many sequels on so many genres. There could be a whole Iggy Pop episode.

John is still really into his craft. That’s very heartening. Not only does he get excited about all kinds of music – and I mean all kinds – but he keeps ploughing ahead. The Band Whose Name is a Symbol released an album last fall and he said there’s one coming up in spring. He’s releasing an album a year and running a store!

I suggest checking out Indira for a snapshot of his scope. It’s East-meets-West, murky psych rock with a jazz jam, reflecting, I think, John’s admiration of Miles Davis.

OM: Who do you think would enjoy this documentary?

AG: I hope it appeals to young artists. It screened at the Digi60 Film Festival after many films on young people “trying to make it in music.” Some of them were endearing, but there was little perspective on the brutality of the business and fickleness of audience tastes. When John came on and laid down the law, people clapped and whooped.

His take is sobering, but he’s not a downer. His point is you have to tear away all constraints and do exactly what you want, and seek out like-minded individuals who can support you in that process.

A lot of young artists waste time chasing trends rather than deepening their own vision. In film, I see that in a whole generation of filmmakers grasping for Youtube fame, for viral ascension. Of course some people are naturally good at that, just as some people are going to be naturally good at writing pop song structures, or imitating Maroon 5 choruses. But most of us are only really good at plumbing own own idiosyncrasies, and I think that’s what we should focus on.

We should value our self-gratitude and those of people we respect rather than the general public. I’m kind of with John on the general public.