I’m not sure how to approach this thing, seeing how I’m the star of the film and everything, and ... What’s that? Overstating the case? Well, maybe a little — okay, a lot. But I did survive the editing process. I am in “Mutes in the Steeple: Stories from the Newburyport Music Scene,” a new film by Port native Joshua Pritchard. There I am, I’m sitting by the river, playing myself, an eminence grise, if you’re feeling charitable, or a crusty, grizzled Lester Bangs wannabe talking about the underground music scene back in the day. Which, coincidently, is just about the time that I bought the Plastic People of the Universe t-shirt I’m wearing in the film. I had been roped into the interview by a smooth-talking Dylan Metrano, who, with Gregory Moss, performed with the edgy, confrontational proto-punk band Hamlet Idiot a couple of years after I bought the PPU tee. That would be the dawn of the 1990s.
Although there were important Port bands before Idiot (like Jeff Morris’ Psychotic Youth, the precursor to NPD, the first legit homegrown Port punk outfit, or the Bruisers, an Oi! outfit that managed to break out of the Northeast indie ghetto), in many ways, the local DIY scene grew up around Metrano and Moss, mainly because they forced the issue with the whole Envy concept, or brand, as people would say now: Creating venues when they couldn’t find them, founding a magazine and web bulletin board to create a community and spread the word, even putting together music festivals and founding a record label for like-minded weirdos. I had been writing about the scene for a while for a variety of local rags, and I couldn’t figure a way out of it, so down by the river I faced the questions instead of asking them, a disorienting experience for an ink-stained wretch, as curious tourists on the Boardwalk stopped and watched, wondering if I were someone famous. Half an hour later and it was over; a couple of months after that, it was forgotten.
That was six years ago. And that was the last I heard about it — until this week, when I found out the film was done, that it was available, that that it would make its Big Screen debut May 15 during the first-ever Burst & Bloom festival, a day-long festival in Kittery that will also feature performances by Mary Flynn, Guy Capecelatro, South China, Tiny Fires and Andrey Ryan, who will also read from “The Need To Be Heard,” her book about the whole DIY experience. They mentioned that there would be a red carpet for folks in the film. I think they were joking about that. I hope they were joking about that.
Diary of a community
The film, which takes its name from an Archers of Loaf song, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the city’s DIY music community, now for the most part dispersed, using interviews, still photography and archival concert footage from a half-dozen key artists, including Morris, Metrano and Moss, as well as Jake Trussell from Electro Organic Sound System, Julian Shea from Lost Cause and Sam Buck Rosen. It’s about music, obviously. It’s also about making a scene, both literally and figuratively. But, more than that, it’s about community — a specific community, Newburyport, but, more importantly, a community of friends tied together by their “otherness,” their rejection of mass-produced, mainstream music and the whole culture of conformity. And while it might not seem like much on this side of the millennium, where there are thousands of niches in a fractured cultural marketplace, it was back in the day. As Morris makes clear in the film: If you wore a Dead Kennedys tee to school, you had better be prepared to defend yourself — and not necessarily intellectually. And the Port punks were so completely overwhelmed, numerically, by the mainstream that friendships, community, could be built “on something as small as liking the same band,” says Julian Shea, frontman for the Lost Cause. This is the genesis of the alt-community in Newburyport.
The film is tied together with footage of the actual physical community, much of which was shot from a moving vehicle — a deliberate aesthetic and intellectual choice (“I think it’s an essential part of the experience,” says Pritchard. “So much of the city, of life, is seen from a car when you’re a teenager.”). It also creates a mood that borders on melancholy; it also has a whimsical feel and a sense of movement.
The filmmaker was a part of this community. Pritchard, 29, went to all the Hamlet Idiot shows. Not a whole lot of people did, for whatever reason — one of the reasons Moss calls the band “a failed experiment.” He also played, with twin brother Jay, in Chestnut Blight, a band that took its name from a disease that decimated chestnut trees around Newburyport High School (“Seemed like a perfect name for a band,” he says.) and Knew Mewn, whose lineup included J. R. Gallagher, who would later play with Tiger Saw, a slowcore band that rose from the ashes of Hamlet Idiot. “If they were underground, we were something below that,” says Pritchard, who now plays in Ruin/Renewal, a Boston-based trio that sounds like REM and Sonic Youth covering Nirvana. “They were a big act to me,”he says. “I found what they were doing was really inspiring. They were doing it. They just started booking local shows. They just didn’t take no for an answer.”
Same as it ever was?
In the film, Shea, at this point working with his new band, These Lies, talks about this same sense of community, and suggests that Newburyport “will always have that underground feel,” which, at the time — six years ago — may have seemed right, but, from this side of the divide, feels a little like whistling past the graveyard — or, perhaps more on point, like the dull echo, back in the day, of those insisting that punk is not dead, as it slowly withers in front of them.
Pritchard says “Mutes” is a “a time piece,” he says. “It captures a time and place, and this is important: You can look back.” He also notes a “certain melancholy,” not by design, in the film because a lot of the issues are the same — the city may not be so polarized, but there still are few, if any, places for kids to go out and make some racket. OK? So I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve gotta figure out what I’m gonna wear to the premiere. Think I can lose 15 pounds to get into that party dress of mine?
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Joshua Pritchard’s film “Mutes in the Steeple: Stories from the Newburyport Music Scene” will debut May 15 at the Burst & Bloom Festival. The event will also feature performances by Mara Flynn, South China, Tiny Fires, Western Homes and Andrey Ryan, who will also read from “The Need To Be Heard,” about the DIY music scene. The event starts at 6 p.m. at Buoy Gallery, 2 Government St., Kittery, Maine. All ages. Tickets are $10. The DVD will be available at the festival, but you can also pre-order. More information, about the festival is available on the festival’s Facebook page. Info on Burst & Bloom is here.