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Distorted Joy: Fuzz Fest 4 at The Bling Pig

Fri, 05/26/2017 - 1:10pm by christopherporter

Fuzz Fest 4

Posters for Fuzz Fest 3 and 4 by Jeremy Wheeler.

When Chris "Box" Taylor says "fuzz" is a "feeling," he's not being emo. He means it quite literally.

Fortunately for music lovers, he's not selfish with the joyous sounds of distortion.

If you live in Ann Arbor and you're into rock 'n' roll, you've likely crossed paths with Taylor, either by attending his annual Fuzz Fest, the long-running dance party The Bang!, or having witnessed one of his many bands tear up the stage at Woodruff's, The Blind Pig, or the now-defunct Elbow Room in Ypsi. Whether opening the blast doors with longtime cosmic rockers Mazinga, transporting you to "Sleeping Mountain" with his band Blue Snaggletooth, or simply whipping up a guitar frenzy as a member of Scott Morgan's Powertrane, Taylor carries that fuzzy feeling with him everywhere he plays.

I distinctly remember walking into Woodruff's in Ypsilanti the opening night of the first Fuzz Fest in 2014. The moment I stepped over the threshold and into the bar, each throbbing bass note rattled my marrow, and each kick of the drum was like a blow to the chest. The music was alive, and neither the thick boots on my feet nor the sturdy jacket on my shoulders could shield me from the penetrating soundwaves.

Meanwhile, as the four members of Bison Machine blasted away at their instruments in a blur of sonic fury, the psychedelic light show above turned my gray matter every shade of the rainbow.

This was an all-out assault on the senses, and it was glorious.

On June 1-3, Fuzz Fest 4 will take over The Blind Pig. With 33 bands preparing to descend upon Ann Arbor, with The Overhead Army on psychedelic light duties, it's a damn shame the students will miss out on what promises to be the kick-off event of the summer.

Fortunately for Pulp readers, Taylor was kind enough to take some time out from organizing this massive undertaking to give us a sneak preview of what we can expect once the amps are stacked, and the bands hit the stage.

Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration for Fuzz Fest and how it's changed over the last four years?
A: The original inspiration was two things: Anthony from Disinformants had put on YpsiFest, which had two stages, and my band Blue Snaggletooth had played this festival at Small's (in Detroit) put on by Scott from The Amino Acids; that one had three stages, and I loved how one band would finish and the other would start right away -- there were no breaks between bands.

I told my wife after I played those gigs that we should do something like that out here. She said you should call it Fuzz Fest. At the time, we were at Woodruff's (in Ypsilanti), which was the perfect place because it had the right amount of space and storage for all of the equipment. Eleven bands is a lot of equipment. And the first year was really successful. Everybody had a good time; there was a good turnout.

Ann Arbor just doesn't have any good real rock festivals. Rock-n-roll festivals. There's Sonic Lunch down in Liberty Plaza. Stuff like that, and bands that play at Art Fair. It's more family entertainment, where I'm definitely trying to go for something more rock-n-roll. It can be all different kinds of rock-n-roll, from psychedelic rock to thrash rock but it's all rock music.

Ann Arbor's got the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and the Jazz Festival. There are all these festivals going on in Detroit all the time. Especially in 2014, there were just so many music festivals going on -- Metro Times Blowout, Hamtramck Fest, Berzerker -- I was just like, man, we gotta have something here, so people in Washtenaw County can enjoy a music fest, too, you know?

The second-year we moved to The (Blind) Pig. It's a little more difficult logistically, but it still works out overall. I try to get bands to share gear and to make it not Gear Fest (laughs). People really seem to like having it there, and The Pig is really the only other legitimate rock venue that could host an event of that size without me having to go rent my own space somewhere. We looked into doing that, but it was just a giant pain in the ass. I've been in and around the music scene four years, and there's not a real deal (rock) music festival in Ann Arbor.

Q: Which is a shame given the local rock legacy.
A: Totally. There's been tons of great music to come out of Ann Arbor. People always complain that there's no "rock shows" at The Pig; we will give them three days straight! (laughs) You can't complain about that!

Q: You talked earlier about the different types of rock music. Is there one that defines Fuzz Fest or does it just span the spectrum from rock to thrash and metal?
A: People have asked and the only answer I can give is that you know when you hear it. You hear it in that certain tone of the guitar.

Q: Distortion?
A: It's distorted, but it can be everything from ambient tones all the way to something harsh and aggressive. It has some sort of effect on your brain. You know it when you hear it, that's for sure. People associated with guitars and pedals and all that, and that's an element of it for sure. A big element. But it can vary in instrumentation. Fuzz can mean something different to everybody. I've definitely had people complain to me, "That's not a fuzz band!" or whatever. OK, according to you! (laughs) It's definitely subjective.

Fuzz Fest 4

Posters for Fuzz Fest 1 and 2 by Jeremy Wheeler.

Q: Traditionally, it's been all Michigan bands in Fuzz Fest, correct?
A: Yes, but this year I've expanded it some to include a few out-of-state bands. I've got a band coming in from Columbus, Ohio, called Lo Pan. They're definitely in the underground rock vein. Our Bang! buddy Dustin is coming from Portland to play. His band is Skin Lies.

I think those are the only two out-of-state bands. I've had a lot of out-of-state bands want to play. The problem is it's not a huge festival -- I never get more than 100 people a night -- and when we do Fuzz Fest, The Blind Pig has to take the capacity down from 400 to 300 because of the two stages. If I could get 200 or 250, I'd be really happy. If I could do that consistently, I could have bigger out-of-state bands.

Q: How are you changing up the fest this year? Taking any new approaches or trying anything new?
A: I tried to get some sponsorship, but it's just too much of a pain in the ass (laughs). I pretty much coordinate the whole event by myself. Jeremy [Wheeler, who also does The Bang! and The Overhead Army] helps me out by doing the poster, and I have people to help me stage-manage and lug gear around during the event. Jeremy and some other people from The Bang! help out with the light show, too, but otherwise, it's just me! I've got a family and two jobs, and I don't have time to deal with Pabst Blue Ribbon (for sponsorship).

Q: The show seems to have quite a few moving parts. How much crew do you have running around on a given night?
A: Three dudes usually. Me, my buddy Jim, and Jeremy, in particular, was a HUGE help. He manned the lights.

Q: I remember at the first Fuzz Fest you were using an old psychedelic light set from the 1960s. It was pretty impressive. Is that still a part of the show?
A: Yeah! The first year we did Fuzz Fest a guy saw the poster and somebody told me to contact him. I did and he said that he had all of these lights from the thing he used to do back then and he told us we could have them. I told Jeremy and we drove out there to pick it up, and it was a ton of old light-show stuff. The coolest part was the old clock faces that are really big and you can use the oil lights in.

We've kinda shied away from the oil lights at Fuzz Fest because it can be really messy and you have to have a really good space to operate in. It was really good at Woodruff's but we're kind of limited at The Pig.

Q: For me at least, that light show the first year really added to the atmosphere. I was pretty blown away.
A: It was awesome because we had all of this space to run the light show and do the oils and not have it be a clusterfuck.

Q: Watching the guys work the lights was almost as fun as watching the bands -- they were obviously having a blast!
A: Yeah, it was totally awesome! I just wish we could do it at The Pig more but it's tough since we're kind of crammed into a corner. I really wish Ann Arbor had a bigger venue! (laughs) I've had offers to do (Fuzz Fest) in Detroit, but I'm not doing it in fucking Detroit -- I wanna do a festival here in Ann Arbor! It drives me crazy -- why don't we have more stuff in Ann Arbor?!

Q: Detroit has a lot of great history, too, but it's nice to have something of our own.
A: You know, there are some great house venues (in Ann Arbor). Far House and Third Death Star are great! Ann Arbor's
got stuff going on, but we don't have a big rock-n-roll festival. I would do it in Ypsi if there was a bigger place. Don't get me wrong, because I love The Pig. The Pig has gone out of its way to help me -- especially the last two years. They definitely let me do what I want, it's just the setup of the place makes it hard a little bit.

Q: Well, you obviously have a good connection there from the Bang! days.
A: Yeah, and they really appreciate the festival in the summertime, when the students are gone. It gives them a little business to fall back on when things slow down for a few months. It's kind of a (Washtenaw) county thing, too, in that sense. (But) I'd rather have it in April because the students are here and I can get that extra 150 people I want.

Q: Back to the light show for a minute: Will the psychedelic light show aspect remain a part of the show?
A: Yeah, we're still doing that. We're just incorporating other aspects of it. We still have the overhead, we still have the liquid light projector, but it's automated so we're not dealing with those big clock faces -- if you drop one of those it's just a big fuckin' mess. Like I said, we're kind of scrunched up in the corner there, so that makes it kind of hard to do the clock faces. But we still have that type of light show going on; we have the overheads, we still have the op art stuff going on, video projectors, and the liquid light projector.

Q: I can see there's a lot to juggle. There has to be something rewarding in the end for putting on such a complex show.
A: I like the feeling of accomplishment when it's over, and I like the positive response from the crowd when they encourage me to do it again. That helps, you know. And I love seeing the bands! I've had really good experiences with the bands there. They always let me know how much they appreciate it.

Q: Are there any bands this year that you're particularly excited to see?
A: I'm excited to see some of the bands that I haven't seen and only followed online because I'm working all the time now and I'm a family guy and I don't get out to as many shows as I used to! (laughs) I'm excited to see Gruesome Twosome and The HELLGHiLLiES -- they're the first band on the second night. I'm excited to see Child Bite since I haven't seen them in a few years. LoPan -- I'm really excited to see them! It's gonna be a good show! Friday night is gonna be crazy because it's kind of the metal/stoner night and all of those bands use huge amps so that will be really interesting.

Q: Have you separated it into theme nights this year?
A: This is the first year I've done that a little bit -- just with the Friday night lineup, though. Otherwise, it's all mixed. I wouldn't say it's a grab bag. Some of my criteria are -- are you touring or playing gigs regularly? Are you releasing music on a regular basis? A lot of bands have contacted me that have never played a show, or maybe they play once a year at somebody's house or something. I'm sorry, I'm not gonna book you.

But sometimes there are bands that contact me that only played a couple shows and want to play Fuzz Fest, so I book them. I take a chance on some people. Booking is weird; hundreds of people have contacted me about playing.

Q: Your band Blue Snaggletooth has been a fixture in the past. Will you be performing in any capacity?
A: Nope! We played the first one and the second one. It's a little easier like this because it's one less thing to worry about.

I want people to come out and appreciate the fact that this is going on in Ann Arbor at The Blind Pig -- hopefully, The Blind Pig isn't closing! It's a good thing!

Related:
➥ Read our articles on Fuzz Fest 4 bands Bubak, Wizard Union, Junglefowl, and Scissor Now!.

June 1 - Day One Lineup:
Child Bite
Human Skull
JUNGLEFOWL
Wild Savages
Bubak
minihorse
Duende
The Jackpine Snag
Warhorses
Visitors
The Gruesome Twosome

June 2 - Day Two Lineup:
S.N.A.F.U.
BoneHawk
Lo-Pan
Wizard Union
Stone Ritual
The Lucid Furs
Cruthu
Red Stone Souls
Rotokiller
Lavamoth
HELLGHiLLiES

June 3 - Day Three Lineup:
The Amino Acids
Caveman & Bam Bam Detroit
Sisters of Your Sunshine Vapor
Disinformants
Scissor Now!
Skin Lies
Wiccans
Shells
Seritas
Steve Harvey Oswald
Spooky Basements


Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.


Fuzz Fest 4 takes place June 1-3 at The Blind Pig. Tickets for day one; day two; day three; three-day pass.

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Blog Post

Songs of Endearment: Jeff Daniels at the Chelsea Alehouse

Mon, 05/08/2017 - 8:00am by christopherporter

Jeff Daniels by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com

Jeff Daniels. Photo by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com.

It was a sunny afternoon in late April, and as I sat across from Jeff Daniels in the room above his Chelsea recording studio, the sounds of a band practicing below drifted up the stairs, permeating the room with the intoxicating sounds of a particularly tight jam session. (Perhaps it was son Ben's band?)

Daniels is a busy man, but on this day he looked relaxed. He just wrapped-up a series of three sold-out, word-of-mouth concerts at the Chelsea Alehouse, each one drawing a bigger crowd than the last. For loyal patrons of the popular Chelsea watering hole, it was an irresistible opportunity to experience another side of a renowned local talent in a cozy, intimate setting.

For those unfamiliar with the musical side of Daniels' career, there's a distinctive streak of Americana to it -- or as he put in on that crowded Saturday night, "Whatever it is that I do up here." A self-taught musician with a playful sense of humor on stage, the actor-cum-musician fuses folk, blues, and country with a talent for telling particularly vivid, often hilarious, tales.

Though his formidable guitar skills give him the distinction of being a musician, his well-honed talent for holding an audience rapt reveals him to be -- as his other endeavors on stage and screen suggest -- a natural-born storyteller.

As is the case with his play and film Escanaba in da Moonlight, there's an unmistakable aspect of cultural preservation to Daniels' music. Songs like "Big Bay Shuffle" and "Michigan, My Michigan" display a deep-rooted desire share his personal experiences with the world at large.

Meanwhile, his distinctive fingerpicking style -- perfected with years of practice and occasional lessons from talented friends like Keb' Mo' -- can range from delicate and unobtrusive in his more introspective songs, to outright rollicking when he decides the room could use a bit more energy.

Though focused intently on editing a video when I first arrived, Daniels was quick to change gears once we sat on opposite ends of his fluffy studio couch. With the songs from the Saturday night show still ringing in my head, I was particularly eager to learn what inspires the esteemed actor as a musician and discover his secrets for engaging an audience when there's no safety net or script to follow.

Q: Thanks for a great show last Saturday night. We really enjoyed ourselves and it looked the like rest of the crowd was, too.
A: Thanks! The solo show is really hard to do because there's no "take it!" There's no one else. So, there's an art to that. There's a challenge to that -- how to hold 'em and the set list. It's easier to play with a band, so I like the challenge of having a place in town where I can go do that and keep my chops up because I enjoy that solo show. I go around the country with it, so it's a great place to keep it fresh. I've been playing out 15 years.

Ben's band plays (at the Alehouse) and Jason Dennie -- I love Jason, he's such a great player. And Thunderwude -- they did a New Year's Eve show and I had played out with Ben's band; we did some tours of the East Coast and stuff, it was great -- it was fun! So, I had done the New Year's Eve show at The Purple Rose and (the Alehouse) asked if I wanted to come over, and I was like, "Oh, what a fun idea!" So, I did it once; the next year, I did again. I think this is maybe the second or third year I've done it, but I just had a ball. So, I was aware of the room, and New Year's Eve is a different gig, but (it's like) Woody Allen (playing) Michael's Pub over on the east side of New York City -- I don't know if he still does -- weekly. (In 1985) he's in New York shooting The Purple Rose of Cairo, which I was in, and if it's Monday, we're getting off at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon because he's playing Michael's Pub on Monday nights. He's got a Dixieland band and he plays clarinet, and he would do that at Michael's Pub because it was around the block from his apartment. Proximity dictates, so I thought there's the Alehouse, maybe that's my Michael's Pub. I don't know, we'll see.

We set up (at the Alehouse) for three Saturdays, every two weeks. This third show was the better show, better set list.

Q: The flow had the feel of a great mixtape.
A: I've been on stage a lot. Broadway. You can feel when you lost them and when you're locked in that play -- that's it. You're locked into that play, that script, that's it. You know, the first two scenes of the second act are heavy lifting because you just played it for a month and a half, and they are every single night. But if you have control over that ... with me it's always been about, why are they here? What did they really want to see? I mean, if you want to see a great guitar player, go see Will Kimbrough Thursday night at The Ark -- which I'm gonna -- or Keb' (Mo'), or Kelly Joe Phelps. Them! That! I wanna do that!

So, that means I've got to entertain them. They've seen my movies; they've seen me on TV. That I can play, and I can have fun with it, I think is part of why they come. ... I led with a lot of comedy because you're in a bar on a Saturday night and it's their night out. If you're going to go up there and navel gaze in the key of A minor, then perhaps this isn't the night for you. So, the first gig was kind of like that. It's been almost a year-and-a-half since I'd really played out, and that was jumping back into the ocean, but the second and third gigs I was going, "OK, I know what they want." And I haven't played those (songs) in a long time, either, so here they come, "Have a Good Life, Then Die" and "Dirty Harry Blues." It's fun and it's weird because you know you're not James Taylor, you know they're not waiting for "Fire and Rain" because you don't have it. You don't have anything like that. But there are people who look forward to hearing "Recreational Vehicle." The CDs are out there, or that's the one that stuck, and so that's interesting to me.

There's three songs that you get to convince them. If they've never seen you,and don't really know what this is except we're here and it's Saturday night and how bad can it be. It's three songs before the shoulders drop and they relax, so there's kind of a moment where, "OK, are you with me? Everybody's with me now. Great!"

I actually pulled out a couple of 'em to keep them laughing. Let's do "Big Bay Shuffle." Let's do "Detroit Train." My daughter's boyfriends in the audience, so let's haul that kid up.

Jeff Daniels by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com

Jeff Daniels. Photo by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com.

Q: So, it sounds like you leave some room for flexibility in your playlist.
A: The night you saw, I swapped out one. I'd written a song called "Real People, Not Actors," which is based on the Chevrolet commercials. You know, the rotating groups of five people who are all looking at Chevy trucks. They insist, Chevrolet does, of inserting that little white card with "Real people, not actors," which to most everyone means nothing. To me, it's offensive because it implies that actors aren't real people. That's the premise, and off I go with it. But I can't get the bridge right. I was working on that one all Saturday afternoon because it's got a nice blues thing in it that I ripped off from Joe Bonamassa (laughs). He's a friend. I got to meet him and he's a really nice guy. It was Norm's Guitar Shop in Tarzana, California. He was playing this great riff. And I'm going, "Yeah!"

Anyway, I was trying to get that ready for the show and I couldn't, so I slid "How 'Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax" in there. It was coming (along), but I just changed the placement (in the set list). When you don't have an intermission, you plant that one to give 'em a boost. And then you drop in a serious one.

Q: Speaking of that Chevy ad, can we talk about how you seek and discover inspiration? I heard your story about being inspired by a golf announcer.
A: It's in "Wicked World." David Feherdy. "That'll get the doors in your head slamming." (Saying) something like that after a guy missed a short putt -- Feherdy's so great! -- and you just "phhft" (mimes grabbing idea out of the air) and that's it! I was trying to work this one in, but it stayed with comedy. I was on a movie set and they were pushing us. They really wanted to get done by 7 o'clock because at 7:01 they went into triple overtime, so they're pushing, and the union guy that was doing the lighting stuff was walking by me and goes, "If they don't like this speed, they're going to hate my other one" and I literally grab it out of the air (for "Hate This Speed").

Q: That's how most of the ideas come to you?
A: You keep the antenna up. It comes mostly from playwriting. All the playwrights I hung around in the '70s and '80s New York City. I had never been around writers until then ... living, breathing writers who are all rewriting a second act. The way they talked and the way they looked at the world; the images and the words they would choose. It's like comedians going (deadpans), "That's funny. What you just did. That's funny." They never laugh, they just acknowledge it and look at the mechanics of why it's funny. Same thing with these playwrights. They would see an image, or describe something as only Lanford Wilson could describe what we both just looked at. And that fascinated me. The choice of words, the selection of words, the imagery.

Q: Maybe the cadence of the speech, even?
A: Lanford's plays are full of -- it's not poetic or poetry -- it's just ... only Lanford would say, "There are only a hundred of us." (A perplexed look washes over his face) What? After he had come to my theater company, he said, "There are only a hundred of us." And I'm going, "100 of us wha?" He goes, "People who would do this, and devote their lives to the art of theater and playwriting and also acting -- and stay in it." The artist end of it. When you make no money in it. None. Zero. Why do it in this world of capitalism and free market? What are you doing it for? Lanford says you do it because that's your art and that's what you have to do. It was just a high, high compliment from somebody who was far more of an artist than I was.

Jeff Daniels by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com

Jeff Daniels. Photo by Chuck Marshall/Lifeinmichigan.com.

Q: Let's talk about collaboration. You recently collaborated with The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark on the album Simple Truths. You said in previous interviews that you typically write your music solo but that Brian was one of the few musicians you could see yourself collaborating with.
A: Jim Fleming is my agent, and he was handling Brian and said, "You two guys should meet!" And once we did, it was like, we both like to write our own stuff, we're not interested in (collaborating) -- me even less than Brian because he's got Verve Pipe and has had success in that area. ... I just write to write -- and he has such a great pop sensibility from his (Verve Pipe) days and all that, (but) I think he just wanted to write differently.

I write by myself -- I write the plays by myself and write the songs by myself. The only thing is whether they're more diary, to put in the notebook for the kids to read later, or does it have a chance to fight its way into the set list? The listening room set list or the Saturday night at the Alehouse set list? Either one? That's kind of what I write toward now. Third is, nope I gotta write it because it's this really nice blues thing and the words don't work right, but into the notebook it goes and move on to the next.

If I'm gonna write with somebody, Brian's just such a nice guy and such a good writer and he understands it and let's give it a shot! We went back and forth, and I didn't think it would work, to be honest -- because of me. But we would e-mail back and forth, we would send guitar and vocal demos back and forth, and we would half-finish them. I paid more attention to the story of it, and he's great at grabbing a moment and writing about that moment. I loved "Behold the Brave," which was tough for him to write. It's about his dad, and now he's got his son, and he's coming to peace with his dad, his own father. That's just a father standing over his grandfather, and his father's casket, and that's the moment. So, he wrote about that backward and up to (the present). He's great at that.

From theater, I'm like, "There's a beginning, a middle, and here's the end, and something happens." Whether it's a button, whether it's a last great joke, whether it's a resolution of some sort. That's the world I come from and I have to fight against that. There's an awareness now because in a lot of my stuff there's just an ending. It's just what I've been doing for so many years.

Q: So, would you say that the collaboration altered your perspective as a songwriter in any way?
A: In the theater -- and I go by this as a playwright -- Arthur Miller said about his play, "I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others." When I sit down with Brian, I go, "Here's the idea: 'Another American Down.'" We wrote that on a Saturday via e-mail, and we were recording it on Monday and it was mastered on Wednesday. It was the Dallas shooting. The Minnesota shooting. The Baton Rogue shooting. And let's not forget Ferguson. It's weekly. It's every 8 minutes.

So, bang! We're gonna write. And it was there. I just had (sings chorus) "Another American Down." The demo just goes through them, and I sent it to him and he came right back like three hours later with stuff that was, probably most of it, and we kicked that back and forth and found the bridge and it was just, "Get here on Monday!" That was cool. I loved that. That was, "I've started it and here ... (mimes handing it off) is this anything?" That's when it gets exciting.

And they were all like that! "Hard Right in the Rain" kind of went to him pretty much there. "Behold the Brave" there may have been a little reorganization but not much. So I enjoyed it! If you want to collaborate, don't send people a finished song! (Laughs) Start there! It was great fun to send something kind of half finished out there; what came back was always interesting.

Q: "Another American Down" is a very affecting song. It really captures a moment in time.
A: Yeah, it's time. This is when artists need to speak up, whether they want to or not. It's a lot easier not to. You stay off the internet that way. You don't instantly piss off half the country, but I remember Frank Rich was -- he executive produces Veep now -- but he was The New York Times' theater critic, and writing for New York magazine. It was six weeks or so after 9/11, and he had written, "Where are the artists? Where are the artists, now? The time is now."

(It's) the same thing (now). Whether it's "Another American Down" or one that we just recorded and put up on the website called "Hard to Hear the Angels Sing." That's about the election. I played it at this years' "Unplugged at The Purple Rose" right at the end, because you know you're gonna piss somebody off. There are a lot of people in this country -- fewer every day -- who are thrilled that he (Donald Trump) is the president. "OK, I'm not gonna even get into that." My thing is, I don't like the way he did it. As a nation, we lost class, and we lost decency and civility. We lost something when that won, so I wrote "Hard to Hear the Angels Sing," which was taken right out of a Kathleen Parker editorial in The Washington Post.

Because of all the vileness and the insults and the overt racism and the Hitler-esque rallies she just asked, "What are we watching?!" And then he wins! You know, "But when your freedom bells ring, it's hard to hear the angels sing." Because I don't like the way you did it. It's fun to write like that because it's my outlet. If I'm going to say something political, I'll do it. I'll just stay off Twitter. Do it through the art.

Q: Do you ever find there's a disparity between the songs you have in your head and the final product? Does it always come out as you initially conceived it, or do you have to make compromises to get it where you want it to be?
A: There are very few that just pop right out. Playwriting informs this. I know that when I write what I think is the song, it's the first draft. I may think it's the song, but the playwright in me is gonna go through five drafts of this thing. We're gonna kick the shit out of the second verse because it's not as good as the first half of the third verse and the bridge rhymes, but you just dig deeper. That's what playwriting teaches you. And maybe it warrants it, and maybe it's a throwaway, but I never let up on 'em, because the ones that went through that -- "Grandfather's Hat" -- I'll come back to 'em, and I won't change a word.

Q: No more tweaking and reshaping.
A: The ones that tell me that they're good songs are the ones where I play 'em 10-years later. "Across the Way" -- I wrote that in 1982. Haven't changed a word. There's no bridge in it, but it just (bobs his head as if he's feeling the groove fall into place), and you're going, "Wow!" That's right out of the theater. That's living off Broadway and I went to the apartment and wrote that.

I'll play others and I'll go, "No … third line of the second verse." But you know, not bad -- good song. But there's a speed bump in there somewhere.

Q: Can we talk about some of your earliest musical memories? The ones that shaped you as a musician?
A: I saw Arlo Guthrie in concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in 1971. The stories. He was doing a lot of "Hobo's Lullaby" and "Washington County." Acoustic guitar! (His face lights up) Oh, that's interesting. I like that. I'll go back to listening to Elton John and Led Zeppelin and James Gang and everything, but what was that acoustic guitar, and what's Stevie Goodman doing? What's that? That was funny!

When I got to New York, I saw Stevie Goodman at The Bottom Line because I was fascinated by one guy, a guitar, and the whole night. That's it. How is he able to do that? What's he doing? And then Christine Lavin. I saw her at The Ark, and I watched this woman, with an acoustic guitar that was bigger than she was, hold us. As somebody who's been in plays, holding an audience is a challenge, so I was fascinated by that. So they always kind of stayed with me -- those performances -- then you discover Doc Watson and Stefan Grossman and (John) Renbourn and all of those when you're in New York. I was drawn to that, and then you discover the blues scales and you go (the look of an epiphany washes over his face), "I had no idea! Highway 61?! What is that?!" And then you go into that and that's when it gets fun. Now I get it.

Q: So it was the role of the storyteller that appealed to you as much as the act of being a musician.
A: Arlo was funny! Those four -- Stevie, Arlo, Christine, and John Prine -- they were funny! It was OK to be funny! It was different than trying to win a Grammy or trying to be a rock star and trying to be "Here's another album of very serious songs." Comedy's always been a second-class citizen. It is at the Oscars. You're kind of "less." You're not a "serious" artist if you're doing comedy, and so I think there was kind of a resistance to "Oh, who's going to want to hear this ..." to "Wait a minute, I can be funny, too!"

I got to know Christine Lavin really well over the years. I told her, "You gave me permission to be funny." Because they're never gonna take me seriously! I'm an actor! I'd just rather do it for fun, and if I can entertain and make a little money at it -- great!

Q: There's a kind of honesty in comedy, though, so it makes sense that it could help a performer to form a bond with the audience. That certainly seemed to be the case last Saturday night!
A: Yeah, it's part stand-up. It's not unlike the movie career, which is Dumb and Dumber to Gettysburg to Newsroom. It's like this and so's the music, and it's fun to pull off both extremes in the same set. I like the challenge of that, and it breaks it up for (the audience)!

Here's the other thing you learn: Make 'em laugh and you soften 'em up., and then you drop in ...

Q: "Mile 416"?
A: "Mile 416." Boom! It's a bigger impact if you've softened 'em up, which laughter does. Physically it does that and it's just structure. That was fun. That's set-list fun.

Q: You take the music seriously without taking yourself too seriously. It's obvious to anyone who hears the music that you do take it very seriously.
A: I work very, very hard at it, but I don't have to make my living at it, which takes a huge pressure off how seriously you take it. I have the greatest respect for people who make a living at it however that can. They're the real artists -- of the acoustic guitar and that scene -- so I take it seriously because I want to be the best that I can be at it, and I've been working at it ever since I bought a guitar at Herb David and took it to New York in 1976 in my car. I'm gonna learn how to play this thing while I'm sitting in my apartment -- and I did. It's been 40 years!

Q: So, you're basically self-taught?
A: A lot of self-taught, and then tab books in the late '70s, early '80s. Doc Watson -- now here comes the alternating thumb -- Stefan Grossman, those tab books. Kenny Sultan. Just learning some of those. Now you're finger pickin' -- that's different than just the strummers. It's interesting to do certain picks from 1982 that you just pull out of a notebook. This is what you were doing back then. I was doing little self-taught rolls with the alternating thumb then. I was trying to figure out, "When did I learn to go back and forth?" I didn't play as much as I should have but I would still write. It was more just to keep myself sane, creatively, because you're not making it. You're off-Broadway, you're out of work -- and good news, you got a McDonald's commercial! You know? There were years of that, and you're there to be what? An actor? Creatively, the one thing you can control is playing the guitar today and writing this song that no one will ever hear. It doesn't matter. I can control that. I can't control anything else; whether they will call today or whether I will get the job, what they want. When you're struggling and trying to work your way up … creatively, that's what kept me sane.

It was a ladder-climb. Then Terms of Endearment and Purple Rose. Now we're into movies. Now you can start to breathe a little. But it was seven years before I did Terms. So you're not just sitting there doing whatever actors do when they're out of work and self-destructive. You're creating something, and that's where the interest in the writing kept going.

I met Stefan Grossman later at the Martin Guitar factory and he gave me a couple of lessons; and Keb' Mo', he's been here. I met him backstage at The Ark and we stayed friends. We wrote a song together a year ago. It was always about the writing. I love the writing, and the guitar and the songwriting. And eventually the playwriting in the '90s. It was like, "Oh! That's what I've been chasing!"

Q: You've faced plenty of challenges as an actor. What's the biggest challenge you've faced as a songwriter?
A: I was going to say deadlines, but if you gave me a deadline of tomorrow at 6 pm and I will write something … and it will probably be not bad -- maybe even better than that.

I think the greatest challenge now is that if you know when you've got a good lyric -- and vice versa -- and now you have to make sure that the guitar behind it is there. Because everything goes solo unless, "This is such a Ben's band song (to play on) and I just know that's what it's going to be and there it is." But I always try to find a way to play 'em solo because I'm always looking. So, if you've got a good lyric, you want the guitar to be fancy enough to match it. "50 Shades of Grey" was a good lyric. Funny. Earns its laughs. It's hard to play because there's a fancy little fingerpick thing going on. I waited until I had that down.

Or say you've got a really cool guitar thing -- you've got a phone full off riffs and you record them because you will never remember them! Then you go through and it just needs some lyrics. That's why you keep the radar out. You go back to Ryan Reynolds and "Pants Off." Then you realize you have that little blues thing and that's fun!

Q: So, would you say it's the lyrics or the instrumental that most often comes to you first?
A: There are more instrumental riffs floating in my phone... there are no lyric ideas. Those come. I have a friend named John Jeanette that I went to Central Michigan with. He was here a week ago. We were here for three days. We wrote some stuff. He had a couple of ideas, and we had started one together that we had written back and forth over the years. It's fun. I enjoy that. There's some good stuff in there! The three or four that we did, and that's the beauty of the studio. You can come over here and put it down. (Ben's wife) Amanda is singing on it and (Ben's bandmates) Wesley and Tommy are working on it, and Ben. So that's thrilling for John and for me!

That's one of the key songwriting things is, "Don't judge it!" Keb' is great about that. He kept saying "Great! Then we do this and that and then he sat on the cat." "Wait, sat on the cat?" "Don't worry about that. It's a placeholder, we'll come back to it.'

I knew what a placeholder was but to see him do that. We wrote it in an hour! We do that in the theater all the time -- fire the judge. It's basically, get out of your own way, stop acting in front of the mirror, don't be self-conscious. Don't judge it! Lowell Cauffiel was a Detroit News writer. True crime novelist. He's out in L.A. as a screenwriter now. Lowell said "Garbage in. First draft, garbage in." In the theater company we go, "I have an idea for a play, and I've written 10 pages." Write the other 90, get a beginning, middle, and end then bring it in. If you aren't going to go to 100 pages, don't bring it in because we don't want to hear about it. Get it in there. So that's Keb's philosophy, too. Go! Push! You give yourself permission to suck. You'll take out suck later.


Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.


Jeff Daniels will play the Chelsea Alehouse whenever he's in town and feels like performing. You can buy his music here. Visit Lifeinmichigan.com for Chuck Marshall's video interview and live photos of Jeff Daniels.

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Supple Wrists: Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, preps its quarterly showcase

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 7:00am by christopherporter

Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, Vintage Flipper World

Not old dolphins but rather rows and rows of pinball machines populate Vintage Flipper World. Photo by Jason Buchanan.

Strolling the aisles at Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, is like talking a walk in time. As cascades of colorful flashing lights fire up your synapses, the frantic medley of familiar themes, playful taunts, and ringing bells transport you to a place where all that matters is keeping that shiny metal ball from slipping between your flippers.

Turn left, and perhaps you'll find yourself standing in front of a vintage game from the 1950s. Or round the corner and prepare to do battle with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on Stern's luminous new "Ghostbusters" machine.

Stick around long enough, and eventually you'll cross paths with Clay Harrell, the gruff yet not-unapproachable proprietor of this wedge-head wonderland.

It was a chilly Wednesday night in March when Harrell welcomed me into Vintage Flipper World to talk about his passion for pinball and the fast-approaching Michigan Pinball Showcase the first weekend of May. From Friday May 5 through Sunday, May 7, pinball fanatics from across the country and around the world will descend on this secluded gamer's paradise to test their skills on over 350 of the best fully functioning machines around.

Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, Vintage Flipper World

Pinball wizards Clay Harrell (right) and Rob Cross (left) try to revive a DeLorean. Photo by Jason Buchanan.

It's critical to Harrell that all of his machines be in working order, and upon arriving at the secluded former VFW hall in Brighton (yes, the Ann Arbor Pinball Museum is technically located in Livingston County), I find him in the cluttered workshop, elbow deep in "Check Mate," one of three vintage games that he and his crackerjack crew of pinball wizards were racing to get up and running by showtime.

His head and torso buried in the belly of the machine, the upstate New York transplant confesses that his passion for pinball originally stemmed from an interest in video games. After attending Purdue University in the 1980s, Harrell and his wife migrated to Michigan, where he landed a computer science job with Ford Motor Company.

It was during that time that he began frequenting monthly auctions in Redford, where he purchased such early, coin-operated arcade cabinets such as "Pac-Man," "Space Invaders," and "Galaga."

Then something unexpected happened: "I found that within a week, I was bored with them. When you play in a bar and you're putting quarters in, whether you know or not, your play is metered because it's determined by how much money you're willing to spend -- or not spend. But if it's at home and it's on free-play, you just press the button over and over and over. So you play a lot more, and it just becomes very repetitive and patterned. Especially those very early ones."

Even so, Harrell kept coming back to the auction, and when a Gottlieb "Amazing Spider-Man" pinball machine came up on the block, he bit.

"They were just more interesting and easier to work on in my eyes. The problem with video games is that the architecture was changing so quickly -- every game was different as far as the boards, and what made them run, and the hardware. With pinball, they would use the same set of boards for 10, 20, even 30 games. So if you learned how to fix one, you could fix the other 29. There was something more magical about them; video games are just pixels moving on a screen while pinball is a mix of old-school mechanical with new-school electronic."

Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, Vintage Flipper World

Electronic boards are the brains that power pinball's vintage mechanics. Photo by Jason Buchanan.

Thus the pixels were banished and the plunger was pulled. Meanwhile, since Harrell reckons no game he ever bought was in proper working order. "Nobody sells a working pinball machine," he states definitively -- he got his fair share of practice getting those broken bumpers thumping again.

Then there was the issue of space; given that a typical pinball machine weighs approximately 200-300 pounds and stands roughly 29-inches wide, 76-80-inches tall, and 56-inches deep, storing such a rapidly expanding collection at home just didn't seem feasible. Around the time of the recession, Harrell began to hunt for a home for his collection.

With his wife's blessing, he rented a 2,400 square feet space in Novi. It was during the recession, so space was cheap.

"It didn't take me much time to fill that up. Then we managed to get kicked out of that."

It turns out someone didn't approve of Harrell's monthly pinball parties in the space and turned him in to the city. "They showed up with the fire department and the city manager. It was a big hairy mess."

So while his landlord didn't necessarily object, the city took particular offense to Harrell's approach of asking forgiveness instead of permission, and "in the end, it all came crashing down. So then we moved to another place and kept everything on the down-low. We were there for two years and everything went great!"

Later, toward the tail end of the recession, Harrell's kid went off to college. As with so many other empty nesters, Harrell and his wife began to scale back and search for a smaller home. As luck would have it, the house they purchased in Green Oak Township, just down the road from an old VFW hall that "wasn't doing well, so it seemed to make some sort of sense to buy 'em both."

Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, Vintage Flipper World

Stimulus overload in the hallway of Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum. Photo by Jason Buchanan.

Before long, Harrell was loading his collection into that VFW hall, and the Greek Oak Township couldn't have been more grateful. So, why refer to it as an Ann Arbor pinball museum? "Because Ann Arbor sounds a lot better than Green Oak Township!" Harrel says "It's marketing, baby. That and who the hell has heard of Green Oak Township anyway?"

Still, having watched in dismay as the building fell into disrepair, the township was elated at the prospect of a new caretaker moving in. Even so, there was still something of a catch: Due to zoning restrictions, The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum could not be open to the public on a regular basis.

Enter the quarterly Ann Arbor Michigan Pinball Show, an event in which members of the public are permitted to enjoy a day of free play for the cost of a single ticket. Whether you happen to be a rabid player with tournament ambitions or a casual fan who just can't keep a ball in play, a mere $30 will permit you to play until your flipper fingers blister (and then some if you brought Band-Aids).

Whether your preference is old school electromechanical or the latest, solid-state-powered table with eye-popping animation and lightning-fast play, you'll find row upon row of games that span the spectrum of the technology. It's an impressive sight made all the more remarkable by the fact that there are zero duplicates among the collection.

Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, Vintage Flipper World

There are no dupes in Vintage Flipper World; there's room for only one "Baywatch" machine anyway. Photo by Jason Buchanan.

That, of course, was a conscious decision made by the proprietor that serves two primary purposes: First, it gives the visitor greater variety; second, it offers a better representation of the game's long and varied history.

As Harrell puts it, "Pinball is like ice cream: There are vanillas and chocolates that everyone likes. Then there's green mint pistachio cherry that three people like but those people love that particular flavor and they'll do anything to get it. We've got a lot of these really weird flavors but also the vanillas and chocolates, too."

But don't mistake him for a soda jerk. Harrell likens himself to a librarian, even though the sensory-shaking audio-visual assault of standing in this living museum brings to mind anything but a place of quiet study, the unblinking concentration of the devoted gamer does strangely mirror the focus of a driven student studying for finals.

For those who take the game just that serious, the Pinball Show also features the "3rd Annual EM World Championships" on Friday morning, before the official opening, and a poker/pinball tournament at the tail end of the show on Saturday night.

Feel free to pack a tent, too, because camping on-site is permitted so that after that last ball of the day falls out of play, you can drift asleep under shimmering stars, an electric lullaby still ringing in your ears.


Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.


The Ann Arbor Michigan Pinball Show will be held May 5-7 at Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, 8891 Spicer Rd, Brighton. Visit the museum's website to buy tickets in advance; it will sell out. Visit vfwpinball.com for more info.

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AAFF 2017 | Interview with Leslie Raymond, Executive Director

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 11:00am by christopherporter

Leslie Raymond, George Manupelli

Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director Leslie Raymond and her husband, Jason Jay Stevens, embrace fest founder George Manupelli at the 50th AAFF.

The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival gets underway Tuesday, March 21, and as artists and film lovers from around the globe prepare to descend upon the Michigan Theater for six days of mind-expanding cinema, Executive Director Leslie Raymond is on a mission to take the country's longest-running avant-garde and experimental film festival back to its all-inclusive roots.

Founded by George Manupelli in 1963, the AAFF has seen its share of shake-ups over the course of the past decade. From the AAFF v. State of Michigan lawsuit that resulted in part from the controversy that erupted over Crispin Glover's award-winning 2005 feature What Is It? to the departure of Program Director David Dinnell last year, Raymond no-doubt had her work cut out for her when she stepped into this pivotal role.

Fortunately for filmmakers and audiences alike, Raymond was no stranger to either the festival or Manupelli's original vision for it as a place where all voices and perspectives are celebrated. Twenty-five years ago, Raymond began her decades-long relationship with the AAFF as an intern under Program Director Vicki Honeyman, whose enduring 14-year run with the festival was longest anyone has served in such capacity other than the founder.

To take the reigns of a festival as celebrated and prestigious as the AAFF requires genuine dedication, and as anyone familiar with Raymond's impassioned 2009 blog post lamenting the "specialized, themed-programming" that had become a primary focus of the festival during that era, there was little question as to where her loyalties lied.

Flash forward eight years, and Raymond is now in the unique position of being able to turn those criticisms into concrete action. Raymond's deep respect for Manupelli's original vision is evident when listening to her speak about her late friend and the festival he conceived, and together with new Associate Director of Programs Katie McGowan, the executive director is on a mission to steer this ship back on course.

With Ann Arbor still recovering from the devastating windstorm dubbed the "largest combined statewide event in history" by Gov. Rick Snyder less than a week before the Opening Night Reception, Raymond was kind enough to take the time out from her hectic schedule to discuss these issues and more with Pulp.

Q: Would you tell us a bit about your background with the festival?
A: This is my fourth Festival as executive director, so the 52nd was my first. I've actually been connected to the festival for a long time. I was an intern 25 years ago when Vicki Honeyman was the director. I've worn so many different hats for the festival: I've shown a couple films in the festival, won a couple of awards, done installation art. At first, it was sort of during the time of the film festival at a local gallery, and then later I started to be invited to do things at the theater, and then I started inviting other artists to do installation work. A lot of storefront window things and after-party installations. I've also arranged programs and screenings, and other special projects, and then I was a screener looking at films back when Vicki was still the director and then eventually when I moved to Texas I was invited to be on the advisory board.

Q: How would you say your new role compares to your older roles?
A: I was an artist and then a teaching artist for many years, so I was never an arts administrator and I was never an executive director before. That is a very different set of glasses to look at things through, so there are a lot of things as an artist or an educator I may have raised an eyebrow at before. Now being the person on the other side, I do a lot of things that I probably would asked myself about when I was younger. I have a much larger understanding and appreciation for what it takes to launch a nonprofit organization. When I first started, Fiat had been a sponsor. I think they had even put a car in the lobby of the Michigan Theater, so one of the first things I was doing was trying to re-engage Fiat to see if they want to do that again. Just that idea of giving over part of the lobby for commercial purposes, as an artist, that's obscene in a lot of ways, but I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the need of economic support and how that can be integral and doesn't have to be an obscene thing. I grew up as a DIY punk-rock person so the idea of any kind of sponsorship or any kind of relations with the corporate world was offensive to me. Now that I see from a practical level what it takes here in the states to be able to have such a cool thing like the Ann Arbor Film Festival, I think I've grown up a little bit. In the earlier days, I probably would have called myself a sell-out, but now I'm more adult and more integrated with the ways of the world I guess.

Q: What are some of the challenges you faced this year with the artistic director leaving?
A: We now have Katie McGowan as our associate director of programs, and I would say that one of the things that was exciting to us from the beginning about her stepping forward to be considered in this role was the kind of work she had done with MOCAD. She grew up in Detroit and left for a while to live in California and Eastern Europe and eventually came back and worked at MOCAD and she said she was really surprised at the first function of they had that the whole audience was caucasian. She was just really surprised and she made it kind of a personal mission to help develop and evolve the audience for MOCAD and she had good success. She did things that opened up the program people from the community to be a part of exhibitions and things like that. That was the thing that resonated with what we really wanted to do, which was to help expand, open, and bring more variety, and have more voices involved, and there was a sense that the founding values of the festival were in line with that.

There's a lecture George Manupelli did for the Penny Stamps series. He called it "An Unauthorized History," and he talks about when he first started the film festival. He actually starts by talking about another filmmaker named Jonas Mekas, who was a film curator and he wrote about film, and he was a Lithuanian immigrant filmmaker living in New York and he was sort of at the hub of the avant-garde film scene in New York then. He did a lot to nurture and grow the community, but as George put it, "If he liked your films, he showed them; and if he didn't, he didn't." George envisioned a different kind of a thing for the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He didn't want it to be a taste-making kind of thing; he really wanted to be open and welcoming and encouraging for everybody to make and submit films and also on the viewing side of things.

Q: So, in a manner of speaking, the new incarnation has come back around to the original intention?
A: Yes, with the caveat that it's my interpretation and understanding through what I've heard George saying, what I've heard others say, and what he and others have written about it. From my own experience of having attended for 25 years, yes, we're trying to bring back some of that original vision of the festival. I think, frankly, what really made it great and what a lot of people responded to was that we have such a great audience here in Ann Arbor and it's unprecedented for an avant-garde film festival to be showing in the 1,700 seat theater. It's hard for us to fill 1,700 seats, but still, our largest audience is a thousand people who will come out for the animation program, which is incredible.

I think some of why we've been successful is because we've been able to take avant-garde and experimental film and put them into a configuration that is attractive to a broad audience. Granted, I'm talking about the broad audience of Ann Arbor for the most part, but we do have a certain type of audience here that's very open-minded and looking for the alternative, and willing to try something different and are seeking something different. We do also have a national and international audience who do come and see the festival, so we do want to remain attractive and in service to them as well.

Q: What do you think it is about the Ann Arbor crowd that makes this particular festival so appealing to them?
A: We're a college town and we have this counterculture history from which the festival sprang from. The values of the counterculture in 1963 was very idealistic and was willing to move into a communally based mindset of operation. It was willing to be inclusive and embrace variety and diversity. It was willing to have its mind expanded and try different things, and experimental film is a great place for mind expansion!

Q: I think more than a few locals were surprised by the SNL parody earlier this year. What was the reaction from the festival organizers?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, that was great! We all loved it! We all saw the humor in it. It was pretty exciting and we've all been trying to find out who wrote it. We were just thrilled that A) it was hilarious and B) it was on Saturday Night Live so those who are in the know about the end of the film festival -- because they didn't call it that, of course, they call the Ann Arbor Short Film Festival -- but it was obviously a parody of us.

Q: How has the 10th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival versus the State of Michigan lawsuit impacted this year's festival?
A: You noticed in the program that Christen Lien is going to be back here 10 years later. She had been directing the festival for a few years during the lawsuit. She's going to come back and be in conversation with one of the ACLU lawyers she had worked with then. I think that was a really defining moment for her in terms of her leadership of the film festival because it really galvanized something to focus on and rally around. That's something that was very important for the foundation of the film festival and everything that it stands for. In terms of how that has been playing out since she left, we're thrilled that she's coming back and is going to talk about it because, frankly, that story has just kind of quieted down. I don't think we as an organization have held it quite front and center. Now, in the current political climate, is a great time to do that, so I was really excited when she reached out and contacted me and told me that she was working on this current campaign of coming out and telling the story and re-engaging with that work that she did with this 10 years ago.

Leslie Raymond, George Manupelli

AAFF execs, present and past: Leslie Raymond at the 52nd AAFF and George Manupelli lounging on the Michigan Theater's stairs.

Q: Would you talk a little bit about the "Off the Screen" events and how you're incorporating the town in the festival?
A: This was an idea that started out last summer. Of course, we've always off-and-on done things that are in storefront windows and try to bring a little extra visibility to the things we do. This year over the summer we had talked about it having some kind of pop-up information stand and ticket booth and maybe we could incorporate an installation with it, and we want to find a way for the film festival to have more of a presence in the weeks leading up, because there are so many people who are here and they don't recognize that it's happening, and then it comes and goes. So we were wondering how we could we call some attention to it. It essentially came out of that. Then the Washtenaw County Community and Economic Development Department gave us an Act 88 mini-grant to do the project.

Q: What are a few of the "Off the Screen" events that the community can look forward to this year?
A: I'm actually heading into the Ann Arbor Art Center right now and we've got a piece in the Aquarium Gallery, which is their window on Ashley, and I'm about to see it for the first time in just a minute. It's one-half of a piece by two artists -- one who teaches at Vanderbilt and the other who is in Turkey. Part of it is down on a monitor in the window and the other part is a video projection on a painting upstairs. My understanding is that it remixes images of contemporary military conflict, so it'll be interesting to see that.

We've also got a piece by Matt Wilkins and Shea Law that's in the storefront window of Arbor Brewing Company and our pop-up ticket booth is in Curtain Call, which is the former Arena. They're letting us use their foyer to hand out information and talk to people and sell tickets and passes. We're about to launch a promotional event to get more people into Curtain Call to try to drive more traffic there in the final week and a half or so before the festival hits.

Then the other piece that's down there is in the 111 South 4th storefront window is by Holly Fisher. She's shown in the festival a few times before. She had a piece called Bullets for Breakfast that won Best Experimental Film in 1992.

Q: What other aspects of the festival should the public know about?
A: Keep an eye out for the different film tracks, the different series. That's something new that we're excited about and getting good feedback about. People are happy to have suggested themes of things to check out. We did set the programs first. Later when we looked back at them, we recognized some recurring themes and some things people would be interested in that we could pull together -- a few different film programs. People have told us that it's great and it can really help them to figure out what they want to do at the festival.

Q: If you were talking to somebody who lives in town but has never attended the film festival, what would you say to encourage them to check it out this year?
A: The festival is a whole lot of fun! It's a great place to go and see alternative media, to hear the voices and stories of a wide variety of people. Not only the stories and the voices but also the way that those stories. It can be a mind-blowing experience, and it's also a really wonderful communal experience. Not only do you have your mind blown but you have it blown with hundreds of other people at the same time so you can then turn to them and compare notes!


Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.


➥ Return to "AAFF 2017 " A Guide to the 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival" for a full list of our coverage. For another interview with Leslie Raymond by Pulp contributor Patrick Dunn, check out Concentrate Ann Arbor.

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Storytelling With Lessons -- & Jokes: "Mostly Functional Humans" podcast

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 8:40am by christopherporter

Mostly Functional Humans

These Mostly Function Humans -- engineer Matt Dubay and co-hosts Andrew Dooley and Rich Retyi -- held court at Alley Bar on February 28, 2017. Photo by Jenna Beauchamp.

It's the last Tuesday in February at Alley Bar, and Mostly Functional Humans co-hosts Rich Retyi and Andrew Dooley are sitting in a booth, preparing for their live podcast. Friends and fans pour through the doors in a steady stream, and the upscale dive bar takes on a party atmosphere.

Back in the booth, the two co-hosts recall the origins of Mostly Functional Humans. Canadian transplant Retyi was working at MLive when he struck up a rapport with Plymouth native Dooley. Almost immediately, Dooley recognized they were on the same intellectual and comic rhythms, and after conceiving the podcast in this very bar, decided to take it into the studio.

As luck would have it, the Ann Arbor District Library was more than happy to accommodate by recording Mostly Functional Humans in its podcasting studio. This is where Matt Dubay -- aka Engineer Matt -- enters the picture. The library’s production supervisor was tasked with recording the Mostly Functional Humans podcast.

In a way, most of what you need to know about the tone of the Mostly Functional Humans podcast can be gleaned by noting that the two current sponsors are Alley Bar and Literati Bookstore. Literate yet far from pretentious, it appeals to the entire spectrum of listeners in the town that seems to value an IPA nearly as much as a Ph.D.

Mostly Functional Humans
13: Pets (March 2, 2017)
The entire world is scary as heck right now. You know what might fix that? Petting a dog! You know what might make that worse? Killing a bird on accident!

Retyi has dark, short-cropped hair and a well-coiffed beard; he sits across from me at the cozy both. He may have been born in another country, but Retyi’s heart beats for Ann Arbor. He views audio endeavors such as this podcast and his other one, Ann Arbor Stories, as an opportunity to capture a moment in time; a multimedia historian on a mission to document the town's rapidly changing cityscape in real-time.

The older and ostensibly more conservative of the pair despite his visible forearm tattoo, Retyi approaches his co-hosting duties with an endearing balance of fearlessness and vulnerability. The digital and social media strategist for the U-M Health sytem isn't afraid to make himself look bad if it means getting a big laugh or connecting with the listener.

In short, he was the perfect partner to pair with Dooley, the towheaded yin to Retyi's swarthy yang. The Duo Security employee is a self-professed radio and podcast nerd with a flair for dry, self-deprecating humor, Dooley cites The Dollop as essential listening before rattling off a list of other favorites that include Your Mom's House, My Favorite Murder, Hardcore History, Slate Political Gabfest, The Irish Times' Second Captains, and Planet Money as other key influences.

Together, the duo manages to match wits, fill in the gaps of the other's knowledge, discourage one another's better judgment, and occasionally let loose the type of good-natured snipes that can only come from a place of brotherly love. But don't mistake them for besties; despite their cracking banter behind the mic, both are quick to point out that they never socialize outside of the studio.

Perhaps that's what makes each pre-recorded episode of Mostly Functional Humans feel so urgent and unpredictable -- a modern reflection of the early days of late-night talk shows, before the "pre-interview" strangled any real sense of spontaneity. Yes, the show is pre-recorded, but it manages to possess the immediacy of live radio.

The only thing missing are live callers and listener feedback, though not if Dooley's fiercely supportive mother has her say about the latter. It's something of an endearing, running gag on the show, still in its relative infancy, but from the looks of the crowd tonight, that could soon change.

Mostly Functional Humans

A mostly functional podcast logo.

With the bar buzzing, the Mostly Functional Humans make their way to the makeshift stage area against the backdrop of bustling Liberty Street. It's unseasonably warm outside, and the townies are taking advantage.

As the the Human's hypnotic, robotic-voiced theme song cuts through the barroom chatter (it really is a fantastic tune), the place goes quiet, and the show begins.

Though the crowd is robust, Dooley is under no illusions, quickly joking that any couples there on a date are about to have a bad time.

The tattooed twentysomething couple sitting in a booth half-way back don't seem intimidated as the three Humans and one particularly brave female fan distinguish the savage butt-wiping techniques from the civil. Naturally, everyone has their own approach (Dooley swears by his Squatty Potty), but the true winner here is Engineer Matt. He pumps his fist to his heart in solidarity as a laughing female fan at the open mic confesses to sharing his methods.

If you've ever heard the name Karl Pilkington, you have some idea of what Engineer Matt brings to the table here. The ostensible straight man of the team, his nonchalant demeanor inevitably leads to a some blindsiding, left-field reveal that plunges the conversation into uncharted territory. In those moments, the Mostly Functional Humans podcast is at its most human.

Mostly Functional Humans
12: Nicknames (February 16, 2017)
Is it better to have a good nickname or give excellent nicknames? Neither! It's way better to have a wonderful name to begin with.

Mostly Functional Humans is, Retyi's own words, "Storytelling with lessons, centered on a topic." Co-host Dooley views those topics as an access point to delve deeper into the psychology of the trio, and in turn, the listener. Anecdotes, reflections, speculations, and, of course, plenty of jokes, all swirl into a nostalgia-flavored audible stew that reminds us that the common factor uniting us is that, yes, we're all slightly off-kilter in our own unique ways.
But it's one thing to record yourself talking in a library studio; tonight, this brave trio is putting all of their peccadilloes on display in a crowded bar.

It's a gamble that appears to have paid off; a show of hands segues into Retyi revealing that he's been off his "brain pills" for a few days. He's confident that he's been successful in supplementing with caffeine, however, and doesn't miss a beat in returning any verbal volleys as the trio moves on to their main topic for the evening: games.

Bursts of laughter erupt as Retyi recalls the games he used to play with his neighborhood friends. Dooley seems especially amused by the revelation of a home-brewed game dubbed Werewolf, succinctly summarizing his co-hosts more elaborate digression on the rules to "tag with a broken BB gun," before himself launching into the description of a game called Statue, which, upon reflection, may not have been exactly what he initially perceived it to be.

Over the course of the next hour, various guests use the open mic to chime in, the merits of Cards Against Humanity are pitted against those of Apples to Apples, and we discover how one mother's bout with carpal tunnel syndrome resulted in a home gaming console being replaced with a pair of tennis racquets.

It all adds up to a communal blend of improvisational stand-up and audience participation that pairs perfectly with Alley Bar's casual-cool ambiance.

As with their pre-recorded podcast, the gang wraps things up here with the audience still wanting more. While they obviously enjoy talking, they also embrace the virtues of brevity, and as the show concludes, Retyi and Dooley are absorbed into the boisterous crowd of friends and fans.

As for their own thoughts on Mostly Functional Human's maiden voyage into the public, Retyi reckons that things went smoothly despite getting slightly parched ("So the next time, two drinks. Or I'll bring some kind of personal valet"), and not quite knowing where to look in the crowd.

Dooley, meanwhile, doesn't hesitate to admit: "that was one of the scariest things I've ever done." For the guy who has confessed that he doesn't want people to look at him when he enters a room, it must have taken some measure of courage. Still, no one there was likely the wiser. As on the pre-recorded shows, he was sharp, engaged, and entirely composed in the spotlight. Mostly, he's just grateful for the show of the people he loves and "the Twitter strangers I've always tried to impress."

It's precisely that unguarded attitude that makes Mostly Functional Humans worth a listen, and a night like this a communal experience that's worth getting out for.


Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.


The “Mostly Functional Humans” podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or via mfhumans.buzzsprout.com. The duo’s other podcast, “Ann Arbor Stories,” can be downloaded from iTunes or aadl.org/annarborstories. “Mostly Functional Humans” can be reached at facebook.com/mostlyfunctionalhumans and @mfhpodcast.

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Blog Post

Review: Force Touch World Premiere

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 3:20pm by anned

Writer/director Rik Cordero gives the introduction at the world  premiere of Force Touch at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th.

Writer/director Rik Cordero gives the intro at the world premiere of Force Touch at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th.

When Rik Cordero, a talented young filmmaker with a passion for science fiction, had the inspiration to work with a local teen center on a creative, collaborative project, their combined talent and drive to create made the possibilities virtually endless. Yet of all the vast realms and universes out there to explore, they wondered what would happen if they decided to venture into the most volatile and dangerous of all—the human psyche?

With acute insight into the effects of modern technology on human relations and a Black Mirror twist on a beloved Twilight Zone tale, writer/director Rik Cordero and the digital dream-weavers over at the Neutral Zone set about telling a story that would resonate with viewers—a story marked by that humbling moment when the whirlwind dreams of our early-20s must reconcile with the kind of reality that doesn't make ratings. The result was Force Touch, which had it's world premiere at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th. An emotionally-charged, fifteen-minute short, Force Touch centers on a group of young friends whose fates are sealed after they discover a cell phone with a camera that takes pictures of events just before they really happen.

By day the Senior Media Producer at Duo Security, Cordero already had an impressive filmography when he departed his native Queens for the greener pastures—literally and figuratively—of Tree Town:

"My wife Nancy (Executive Producer of the film) and I, moved from New York City to Ann Arbor last July. We shot a ton of music videos and commercials during our time there but the work life balance sucked. Once we moved, the creative quality of our lives improved almost immediately through meeting many diverse folks with common interests."

"With more time to focus on storytelling, I came up with the idea of Force Touch and my goal was to capture elements of the college culture here from an outsider's point of view. I'm a college football fan but maybe not to the degree as some of my friends who have lived here their entire lives so I wanted to explore those emotions and how they would bounce off the characters in the story. Also Ann Arbor was a new canvas for me to employ a layer of sci-fi and technology which is another passion of mine."

It was Duo Security owner Dug Song and his wife Linh who introduced Cordero to Neutral Zone Executive Director Lori Roddy and Community Relations Director Mary Moffett. Later, after touring the facility, the filmmaker hatched a plan to write and direct a short to be produced by the Neutral Zone in collaboration with Alysha Schlundt-Bodien, Facility and Training Coordinator at CTN in Ann Arbor.

Tasked with supervising the teens during the shoot, Schlundt-Bodien was thrilled to witness firsthand how valuable the experience was for the teens: "I asked one of the Neutral Zone teens to talk about his experience to the VP group, and he said that he learned so much from the production. He learned that it takes way more time to set everything up than he thought it did—from the lighting to the staging—and how important it is to be organized. He also said it would be great to help out with something like this again."

Of course every independent film is a struggle, and though a major snowstorm on the first day of shooting set the tone of the turbulent production, the teenage crew weathered on, gaining valuable experience about the importance of persevering amidst unexpected set-backs. Despite even the most meticulous planning, any number of things can go wrong on a movie shoot at the last second, making a filmmaker's ability to improvise under challenging circumstances a critical component of success.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the camera, you'll find a talented selection of actors thst Cordero and his wife/filmmaking partner, Nancy, became acquainted with during last year's YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, which challenges independent filmmakers to produce an engaging short in a single day.

But the fortuitous connection to local talent was just one of the perks of participation; in Cordero's words, "There's a special sense of camaraderie and collaboration here that's been missing for awhile in New York City. It's easy to stay busy in NYC but most video creatives including myself were often stuck hustling multiple gigs just to pay the bills. There's a better work life balance here that's very refreshing and reminds me about why I got into this business in the first place—to share stories and stay inspired."

And inspiration was exactly what Cordero intended to do by showcasing Force Touch, along with a specially-curated selection of other locally-produced shorts, on Thursday, May 19th at the historic Michigan Theater. During the lively question and answer session that followed the sold-out screening, Cordero voiced hope that the event could act as a sort-of catalyst of creativity among local media artists. Judging by the stellar turnout, he may be onto something, too; the Michigan Theater's Screening Room was buzzing with excitement as the cast and crew fielded questions from the audience before raffling off prizes that included enough filmmaking gear to make any aspiring Scorsese salivate.

Nancy Mitchell, Rik Cordero, Adam Ruff, and  Alysha Schlundt-Bodien at the sold out premiere at the Michigan Theater.

Nancy Mitchell, Rik Cordero, Adam Ruff, and Alysha Schlundt-Bodien at the sold out premiere at the Michigan Theater.

Highlights of that session included the revelation that the story was originally set to take place during football season, but that the plan was scrapped due to the aforementioned snowstorm (the actual film production only lasted a couple of days), and that the idea to offer a twist on the original Rod Serling tale from the Twilight Zone episode "A Most Unusual Camera," came after reading a news article about a prototype iPhone accidentally left at a bar by a careless member of the development team. That story, combined with Cordero's fascination with "things we don't see that can control our lives," such as complex social media algorithms with the potential to alter real-life relationships, served as the pillars of Force Touch's plot.

Near the end of the question and answer session, Cordero, visibly moved while addressing the packed auditorium, hinted that this event could be the first in a series aimed at showcasing local films and filmmakers. It's a noble goal that, judging by the "Sold Out" sign at the box office, is well within reach.

But that's the future. As for the present, the seeds of creativity definitely appear to have taken root. Asked about his experiences working as a production assistant on Force Touch, Neutral Zone teen Adam Ruff exclaimed, "I definitely want to move forward in filmmaking, although I don't know in what capacity just yet."

With events like this premiere and the YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, as well as the abundance of creative programs offered by the Neutral Zone, Ruff will no doubt have an abundance of opportunities to stay inspired and grow his talents. You don't need a camera that can see into the future to be certain of that.


Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.

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Blog Post

Goodbye Dollar Theaters, Hello Value Screenings!

Fri, 03/25/2016 - 4:14pm by Sara W

Great movies can still be seen on the big screen for little money in Ann Arbor.

Great movies can still be seen on the big screen for little money in Ann Arbor.

The dollar theaters are gone, but their value lives on in two of the last places frugal moviegoers might expect.

That’s right, over a decade after the Fox Village Theater was replaced by Plum Market, and nearly six years after MC Sports punted Briarwood Dollar Movies from the hallowed halls of our local mall, deal-seeking cinephiles can still save thanks to special programs at the Quality 16 on the west side of town, and Cinemark's Rave Motion Pictures to the east.

And while it’s true these programs may not adhere strictly to the “second-run” model that once provided moviegoers on a budget with affordable entertainment alternatives, programs focusing on beloved classics and recent children’s fare ensure that audiences of all ages and tastes will find something to butter their proverbial popcorn.

As any frequent moviegoer can attest, the film release landscape has seen some seismic shifts in recent years. Even as recently as 2010 – the year that Briarwood screens went dark – affordable home theater systems and changing distribution models were making it difficult for discount theater chains to survive, much less thrive. Flash forward just a few years, and convenient alternatives such as Netflix (whose high-profile sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny recently debuted on the popular streaming service) and On Demand options have started to make leaving the house for a night at the movies more of a pricey chore than an escape from reality.

Fortunately, some savvy theater chains have started to pick up the slack for those shuttered screens. Opened in 1998, the Goodrich Theater Quality 16 primarily focuses on first-run films. A closer look at the chain’s history, however, reveals they are currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of their family-friendly movie series. Dubbed “Morning Movies,” the current program promises nine weeks of PG-rated fare for just $1 a ticket. The shows, which began on March 4 with Home (2015), run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10 am.

Even better, patrons who sign up for the theater’s free Frequent Moviegoers Club will not only get into each screening absolutely free, but also be allowed up to 6 free admissions to each show by presenting their FMG card at the box office.

Speaking to Quality 16 Assistant Manager Mark Culp, it quickly becomes apparent just how popular these series are. According to Culp, “Ticket sales can be a little slow toward the beginning of the season, but once the word starts to spread, we usually have to open a second auditorium to accommodate the larger crowds.”

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have some symbiotic advertising as well. “A lot of the time we’ll have special guests come in for appearances at the screenings, too. We’ve had karate group demonstrations, and even a petting zoo with a real kangaroo.” These special guests frequently appear in the theater’s spacious lobby, and tie in to the theme of that week’s movie. The series ends on the weekend of April 29th with the beloved adventure comedy The Princess Bride.

Meanwhile, across town, the Cinemark is in the midst of their popular Classic Series, a six-week program catering not just to parents, but also to those nostalgic souls who long to experience their old favorites somewhere other than the living room. Each week a new film debuts on Sunday, with an encore screening the following Wednesday.

The series launched in 2013 after a group of Arizona senior citizens asked their local theater about the possibility of resurrecting some of their favorite classics. From there, the series quickly expanded nationwide with screenings of The Godfather I and II, and now plays at approximately 140 theaters.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The introduction of digital projection brought with it a new distribution system that made these films easily available to theaters across the country. Gone are the days of the beat-up 35mm print sputtering its way through wobbling projector spindles; these copies have been cleaned up so well that they likely look even better than you remember them.

Cinemark Marketing Manager Frank Gonzales takes particular pride in that, too. "I would venture to guess that for a lot of these folks, the presentation is much cleaner than they remember it, because there are no cuts, no scratches like you would find on the prints. The sound is probably better than they remember because we've got digital sound systems in all of our auditoriums with speakers and specs that are built for that auditorium," says Gonzales.

As for the wide-reaching appeal of the series, Gonzales continues, "The Classic Series have really become a generational thing, with parents going back to see the movies they saw as kids and bringing their own kids with them. Or folks who remember seeing a movie when they were younger and want to see it again. Maybe it was the first movie they ever saw in a theater, and now the only place they see it is on a television set, or possibly a phone, or on a tablet. So this is the opportunity for them to get the real experience."

According to Gonzales, the films for the series are selected in a number of ways. "We have a Film Department here. We've got a couple of people in the department that have their wish lists of things they'd like to see. We also get feedback from customers. They're always offering their suggestions for films to place in the Classics Series. Then sometimes the studios will come to us. They'll say they're going to put out an anniversary edition of a movie. For instance, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We just recently had that last week."

Naturally, as more theaters embrace the digital projection model, every year brings new titles that weren't previously available for screening. So if your favorite film isn't in this series, let your voice be heard, and there's a fair chance it will be in the future. Speaking of days to come, on Sunday, April 3 and Wednesday, April 6, movie lovers can take an epic voyage into a frightening prospective future and beyond, with back-to-back screenings of the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Other screenings yet to come include an Easter Sunday matinee of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a pair of encores the following Wednesday), and the series capper, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13.


Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.


For complete information on both series, including showtimes and more, visit Goodrich Quality Theaters and Cinemark.