"There should be a band on every block, 'cuz it can happen." - D. Boon
A new film by Tim Irwin and Keith Schieron seeks to school the world about the power of the seminal punk band The Minutemen, whose creative force was at its very peak when brought to a tragic halt. Lead singer/guitarist D. Boon was killed in a van accident just three days before Christmas 1985 as the band was touring with REM. Consider We Jam Econo [web site] a sorely overdue eulogy of sorts, with an excess of musicians, artists and cultural trackers testifying to The Minutemen's legacy. And front and center of course are D. Boon's former bandmates, drummer George Hurley and, most prominently, bassist Mike Watt, seen revisiting many of their old haunts, obviously still grieving over the loss of Boon and still touched by having known him.
But what makes the film, which itself jams econo but gets the job done, a must for punk rock archivists and music fans everywhere is an abundance of footage of The Minutemen in action. Songs are captured in their entirety - not a surprise, given their proclivity for one-to-three minute songs - and the medley of performances is a treat for those many of us who unlucky enough to have missed them live.
I spoke with Tim Irwin by phone; Irwin's based out of Salt Lake City, while his friend and filmmaking partner Keith is in Seattle. But their hearts, it would seem, lie somewhere near San Pedro, California, circa 1983.
Craig Phillips: What's the origin of the film's title?
Tim Irwin: Mike Watt actually suggested it. We were struggling with a few different ideas for titles and ran them by Watt, and he said, well why not "We Jam Econo." And of course that made so much sense, as the term itself was almost a code of ethics that The Minutemen lived by. They ran a tight ship, because if they didn't, if things got too sloppy, they wouldn't have been able to do what they did. They kept things cheap so they could survive and do what they loved. And that was an approach we took with the film, too.
CP: It's sort of like an early "DIY" type phrase...
TI: Very much so, before that term was in vogue.
CP: Were you and Keith fans of The Minutemen originally or did you run across them later?
TI: No, we were too young - in '85 I was about 12 years old, and didn't discover them until about 1988. In fact, we both discovered them the same week but in different ways. I was a skateboarder and had bought this video called "Streets on Fire," a Santa Cruz video, and the very first song on it was [The Minutemen's] "Paranoid Chant." And there were a handful of other Minutemen songs on there, plus some firehose [Watt's other band] tunes. I got all excited and looked at the credits to find out who it was. I went out and bought "Post-Mersh volume 3." The same week, Keith, my partner, was digging through his brother's old Spin magazines, and found some article describing them as (I'm paraphrasing), "If the standard three minute pop song is a sentence, then The Minutemen's songs are an exclamation point." That really intrigued him, so he went out and bought some of their records, too. We both had video production class together in high school and came to class one day, with me saying "I saw this skate video with this awesome music" and he was like, "I just went out and bought those records!"
So that's how we discovered them and were of course really bummed to find out they weren't around any more. We started going to firehose shows - at least they were still around.
CP:What made you compelled to actually put together a film about them?
TI: It started back in high school, too, with those video production and radio production classes. We always talked about how nobody had done a documentary about The Minutemen. Then we lost contact for ten years or so after high school. When we did meet up again, Keith was real surprised to find out that I'd been doing documentaries and sports films (BMX and skateboarding). And he'd been doing a lot of college radio and other music related stuff. The company I'd been working for was just about to go under, so it seemed like a good time to do a film.
CP: Was this the first time you'd actually directed a feature film?
TI: I'd co-directed a film before. And this was really both Keith and I directing and producing together, so it was a similar role feel to other films I'd done in the past.
CP: How did you go about getting concert footage for the film? I imagined it being hard to come by good Minutemen footage.
TI: It was all pretty magical. We'd approached Mike Watt, told him the idea for the film, and said, "We're just gonna go away for a few months, and you think about it. We'll see you when you're done on tour. If it makes sense, we'll do it, if you don't want to do it, we won't." And once he gave us the go ahead, it was really easy because he's got so much respect from so many people that we could just put the word out. As the word spread that we were doing this, the footage started flowing in, some pretty amazing stuff that hadn't been seen before.
That one show at the Starwood was their very first paid gig and it was also a two-camera shoot. We have audio off the camera and audio off the boards, so that was really amazing. They really look young in that footage, too.
CP: You use a lot from that one interview featuring all three members of the band when they were also quite young, which was one of the few with D Boon. What was the source of that?
TI: This guy named Mike Ryan was the guy asking the questions in that piece. I think the original intent was to submit that to MTV but they weren't working for MTV when they did it. It never actually aired anywhere. He was kind enough to let us use it, and that was a huge part of the film because it's about all we got of D. Boon.
CP: You interviewed so many people for the film. How many places did you have to go to talk to people?
TI: It was hard, although we tried to round people up, and obviously a lot of folks are in LA, which makes it a little easier. We'd plan a handful of interviews for each trip.
Making documentaries is such a difficult thing and getting people to commit to these interviews is a challenge. When we were planning our first trip to LA, Keith told me he had 12 or 13 interviews lined up. And I thought, if we could come up with just 7 or 8 of those, I'll be really happy. But we came back from that with 17 interviews! Which never ever happens. Again, it goes back to the amount of respect people have for The Minutemen. As soon as we told people what we were doing, they'd want to help in any way they could. That was a very different experience from other films I'd worked on.
We also made one trip to the East Coast, NY to DC, and all over. And there were a few folks we couldn't make it to so we'd find a camera guy on Craigslist who was in that area and ask them to go do the interview for us.
CP: So you used Craigslist? The Minutemen would have approved of that methinks.
TI: [laughs] I would think so.
CP: You also talked to Mike Watt's mom and Nanette Roeland [Watt's girlfriend at the time].
TI: Yeah, Nanette was good friends with all of them and designed all the t-shirts for them.
CP: They seemed to know a lot about music. Mike Watt's mom was pretty hip.
TI: She was a fantastic interview. She was really shy at first and then opened up. Everything she had to say was really good and insightful, and she showed us photos of the guys as kids.
CP: It was obviously hard for Mike Watt to "revisit" his friendship with D. Boon. Was he reluctant at first to talk about all that?
TI: It was hard but once he made the decision that we were going to do this he was committed to it. He didn't hold back, he was open and honest. I was really impressed with the way he was able to talk about it, knowing how hard it was for him to watch it when we were done.
Ever since I'd known about the Minutemen, D Boon was already gone. That's always the way it was for me. Then it hit me when we were almost done with the film that for Watt it's almost like if for me my wife had died and then someone made a film about it. That would be so hard. So I respect the fact that he realized how important this is to so many people and trudged through the pain.
CP: Watt seems to wander through this former life wistfully like it was a ghost town. It looked like he drove you all over God's Green Earth, or all over LA, in his van. What was that like?
TI: We just hopped in his van, turned on the camera, and went on what he called "The Tour." It took about four or five hours. That was a pretty magical moment for me.
CP: Was there an idea of trying to show the musical progression of the band by how you put together the concert footage?
TI: It jumped a little bit all over the place. We were real fortunate to get that early show, and then probably ninety percent of the footage we have is 1984-85. There's this gap where we don't have anything in between. So we've got their very first paid gig, November 18, 1980 at the Starwood, and then a bunch of shows from '84-'85. You can kind of see a lot of progression in between but with some missing gaps.
CP: Towards the end, you could just see how much better they were by the time the last few albums came out.
TI: We used images from lots of different shows but cutting the later footage together was a testament to how tight they'd become by the end. It was so easy to take bits from each show and just synch it up to the audio. It just showed how tight they were because even from performance to performance things were matching up.
CP: The film touches on how they opened for REM, which turned out to be their last tour. Was there no footage available of that tour?
TI: Not that we were able to come up with. There may be somewhere but we couldn't track any down.
CP: Did you approach REM for the movie?
TI: We did finally get an interview with [REM bass player] Mike Mills, who was able to say a few things. In fact, I literally got this a few days ago so at least it will end up on the DVD. He recalls the tour and some of the same things that Watt said about it, which is kind of nice.
CP: There's some debate in the film about how to classify The Minutemen - rock, punk, funk, hardcore - how would you define them?
TI: I try not to put them in a category. They're influenced by all those areas, which is apparent in their music. It's such a weird thing now. You used to be able to say someone was "punk rock" and that meant so many things. Now it seems to have a different attachment to it. So it sounds like a cop out but really they were "indefinable."
CP: There wasn't much mystery to how D Boon actually died, or was there and you didn't want to go into it?
TI: Some people think there's some controversy around it but we tried to shy away from that. Our film wasn't an investigative report on how he died. He did die, and it's a really sad thing, and that's how we treated it.
CP: Will this film help add to The Minutemen mystique and to the number of people who know about them?
TI: Yeah, we set out to do two things with this documentary: For people who already knew about The Minutemen we wanted them to remember the inspiration they felt when they first heard that music. And for folks who'd never heard about them, we hope they can feel the inspiration we all felt, because they were so inspiring, and not just in musical ways. They were an inspiration for me to do my own thing in the film world and to stick to it - that came from their music and their words.
CP: Are there bands today that strike you as Minutemen-influenced?
TI: It's hard to say what bands they specifically influenced directly, but I do think they inspired so many people. Again, I would hope the inspiration people take from them is to do their own thing instead of trying to copy them. In that way there are a lot of people who hold the same work ethic. It's less about the sound - even though the sound is totally amazing - and more about the attitudes and work ethic side of it.
CP: I just found my old cassette copy of "Double Nickels on the Dime" that I'd had since high school. It's exciting especially because it's hard to find a copy used - no one turns it back in!
TI: Yeah, exactly. That's one you keep on the shelf. Our Seattle screenings were sponsored by one of the local record stores, and they came to the shows armed with stacks of Minutemen records to sell. Apparently they sold quite a bit. That warms my heart.
Sleep well, D. Boon...