Interview: CIMM Fest Chicago Kicks Off on April 13, 2016 with ‘The Smart Studios Story’

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CHICAGOCIMM Fest is back to save the world from ordinary film festivals! The Chicago International Music and Movies Festival (CIMM, baby!) launches on April 13, 2016, with “The Smart Studios Story,” directed by Wendy Schneider, with appearances by Butch Vig and Steve Marker of Smart Studios.

Filmmaker Schneider has created a chronological tale of two music lovers and a dream that developed into Smart Studios of Madison, Wisconsin. This story eventually evolved into the sound that changed everything – the “Nevermind” album from Nirvana, produced by the Smart Studios’ Butch Vig. Using archival footage and interviews with the main players, Schneider brings back a time and place that can never be again, but also has vibrations to this very day. The film will premiere at the historic Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and will be followed by an after party at the Cabaret Metro (home of so many of that era’s bands), featuring a performance by Catherine and the Negative Example – which has ex-members of ‘Tar Babies,’ a prominent band featured in “The Smart Studios Story.” For ticket information, click here.

The Smart Studios Story
Back in the Day: “The Smart Studios Story,’ directed by Wendy Schneider
Photo credit: CIMM Fest

Director Wendy Schneider is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, community activist, musician, and former producer/engineer at Smart Studios. After a triumphant world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March of 2016, the film makes its Chicago premiere to kick off CIMM Fest. talked to Wendy S. exclusively in anticipation of the event, and her perspective shines a light on the essence of the Smart Studios. This is a true Midwestern rock doc, and it is going to open one of the biggest movie and music festivals in the Midwest. How powerful is it, in your perspective, when these two great saints of Midwest rock meet for a sonic earthquake?

Wendy Schneider: What’s powerful for me about ‘The Smart Studios Story,’ and what will be powerful for the audience is that it’s the story people don’t know that they don’t know. [laughs] It’s cracking the lid open on this Midwest epicenter, that has been thriving for the past 30 years without jamming itself down people’s throats.

The studio had existed in a way that is really potent, really sincere and really not pretentious, especially when looking at the history of indie music. This is just the beginning of so many conversations and pursuits to understand, look at and learn about this period of time and this Midwestern location. The rock doc is a particular and sometime peculiar genre of its own. Before you started plunging into this story, what notes did you make to yourself as to what to emphasize or avoid in your approach?

Schneider: I always feel like that the work I chose to do as an adult, my philosophy has always been ‘keep it human, and keep it accessible,’ and also don’t go outside the actual source. I didn’t want the film to be narrated by anyone, I wanted to get the people who were there to help tell the story. My job after that was to companion those anecdotes in a way that made sense, and give the audience a chronological journey to participate in, from people who lived it. That was the intention. Once you shot all your interview footage, collected the archival photos and videos, and staked the actual locations, what moment in the documentary became the mantra for the heart of it, and how much did you additional have to do after that heart came together?

Schneider: For me, when I realized that one of the main connections was the punk group Killdozer had to Nirvana was one that would ultimately change the course of the genres of American rock music, I was really astounded by that. Without Killdozer, there would not have been the Nirvana album ‘Nevermind.’ That link was connected to that shift in rock music in the early 1990s. I felt my goal was to give context to that connection.

Without having to do an entire film about Killdozer – which someone should do, by the way – I wanted to use it the connection as a turning point, but I couldn’t shine too bright a light on it, because I didn’t want to overshadow the other elements of the film. What is so special about that era of rock is the grainy 1980s camcorder videos that were often taken of these bands. How were those important to your story?

Schneider: [Laughs] When it comes to those particular videos, when you put enough shit together it shines. At first I thought, ‘how am I going to correct this so it looks good?’ But them I realized I wasn’t going to correct anything, it works on its own.
This footage made sense to me as a filmmaker. That footage, and the period of time, was so organic to independent music.

We were using marketing tools back then that were almost cavemen-like, in comparison to now. We were walking the streets to get audiences, and doing things by hand. Back in the day I remember that you had to call a phone number at particular hours. I was trying to get a gig for my band at one of the prominent rock clubs in Chicago, maybe the Empty Bottle or Lounge Ax, and I had to call on a Tuesday from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, and you had to talk to ‘Sue.’ If that number was busy, or Sue had stepped out for coffee, I was f**ked for another week. [laughs] These were physical, tangible levels of being in an indie rock scene. That was pretty real, when we look back now. What was the rarest bit of footage or audio from that time?

Schneider: The rarest bit I found was from a local community radio station in Madison called WORT. They told me they had a cassette of a Nirvana interview when they were in Madison recording ‘Nevermind’ at The Smart Studios with Butch Vig in 1991…and no one had ever heard it. Documentaries are always saying that they have unseen or unheard stuff, but this was monumental. However, I used very little of it in the film, because in the whole half hour interview, most of it was lackluster, more lackluster than you’d ever want. No one cared about the band. It was before everything. One of the essential philosophies in the film is about the Midwest ethos in establishing the studio and creating that special vibe. What, in your opinion, was the one Midwest element that best defined The Smart Studios?

Schneider: I think it comes back to work ethic. That’s not necessarily all Midwest – I came from the East Coast and it was also there – but it is a certain thing that is combined that work ethic with the being mellow and non-pretentious. I found that with these guys, and I continue to find that with people form the Midwest. That is bred into them, they do what they did because they worked there. It worked within that environment. One of the most interesting comments in the film regarding The Beatles. Do you believe that bands that often try to either hate or get away from that ever-present past usually end up creating something better, or do they eventually come around to the bits and pieces that The Beatles developed?

Schneider: Any band that is consciously trying to not ‘do something’ is compromising their work. I feel the more you can be in an environment that accesses every place in yourself, that made you come together and make good music, that part of making good albums.

With Butch Vig, it’s more formulaic as far as what he wanted to draw out of a project. He had an aesthetic that was pulling out stuff that was rooted in a certain way that music sounds, and the band he’s producing may not be conscious of that at all. So it’s a two fold relationship – what the producer is trying to extract from the band, and what the band is consciously trying to do and not do. There could be problems with that ‘not do’ area if they don’t have a good producer. Which interview subject were you personally most starstruck by, and where do you think your love for that subject is expressed in the film?

Schneider: Easy answer…it wasn’t about being starstruck, but it was the heaviest in weight as an interview, and that was Billy Corrigan [Smashing Pumpkins]. He brought such depth and dimension to the interview – I felt he knew the movie I was making more than I did. That really caught me off guard.

We had a great environment, and he just came in and started talking. My first question was kind of off the mark, and he looked at me for ten seconds and say, ‘I have no idea what you’re asking me.’ [laughs] But he did say, ‘here is what I think you’re asking,’ and took it from there. Billy Corrigan delivered in a way that was so important to the film. He became a pillar for the story.

The Smart Studios Story II
Director Wendy Schneider of ‘The Smart Studios Story’
Photo credit: CIMM Fest Is it your opinion that the years expressed in this film are the last great era of punk and/or rock because of the way music is shared and distributed today, or can a ‘Nevermind’ type album still emerge to create a similar storm?

Schneider: In my opinion, we don’t need another ‘Nevermind’ album. But I never feel that anything is ‘over.’ Punk rock is fringe music, and people will always be accessing the potency in that music, it will always be there. It’s not going away. It may be harder to find, because our lives are saturated with bullshit, but we all know punk when we hear it, and we always will. I trust myself to know that. The Smart Studio Story is the perfect philosophical struggle between doing something for the love of it, and having that success begin to slowly devour the love. From your observations, what did you think Bruce Vig and Steve Marker would have done differently to preserve the love, at a point before it was completely eaten away?

Schneider: You always have to look at what success brings – that is a very powerful layer in the film, ‘what happens with success?’ Butch, Steve, the band Garbage and the Smart Studio all achieved a level of success that whether we liked it or not, dismantled a core innocence of what Smart was built around.

However, the vibe never went away. All the engineers were schooled on some level by Butch and Steve. It was approach they had to music, and they still have it. I don’t think they could have done anything differently. The door opened, they could have decided not to walk through it, but they did it unconsciously. They followed the momentum, and the momentum was created by them. No one gave them these opportunities, they created it themselves. Even the way it ran its course was organic and natural. Which song or band album, in your opinion, marked the beginning of the beginning of The Smart Studios, and which one was the beginning of the end, and why?

Schneider: The beginning of the beginning for me was the band ‘The Appliances.’ That music still stands as the strongest in the film. There was a certain sound and energy that defined was Smart began doing, and a band that was f**king unbelievable. The beginning of the end, not to be a cliché, but it was the ‘Nevermind’ demos and the Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Gish.’ Gish is sonically fantastic, and always blows me away, and the studio ‘room’ it was made in doesn’t exist anymore. Finally, do you think through the scope of your documentary, that the past ain’t what it used to be, or do you think the bands, the studio and the vibe of that era was far superior to what we can connect to currently?

Schneider: It wasn’t ‘superior,’ in how I think about it. Doing this film allowed me to consciously honor a process that made music what it was for that time – it was contingent on the process, the environment and the people. There was no escaping that. Now that is not as available or accessible, or even in the consciousness of people making records. That, I think, is where projects can suffer, because there is a fragmentation, as a result of a loss of ‘space.’

Recording studios are not affordable anymore, when combining real estate and the current recording environment. Today, there is little expertise in analog recording – the type that lives and breathes music, because digital does not. In analog, there are warm tubes and a life force. This is not romanticizing, it is just reality. It could be that recording has just peaked out, because the human-ness has gone away – the days have gone by.

CIMM Fest – The Chicago International Music and Movies Festival – begins with the Chicago Premiere of “The Smart Studios Story” on April 13th, 2016, starting at at the Music Box Theatre Chicago at 7:30pm. Click here for more information, and to access all of the schedule for CIMM Fest. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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