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Billy Joel's Russian Tour Revisited: Interviewing Filmmaker Jim Brown, Plus Mastodon's Brann Dailor

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A Conversation with Filmmaker Jim Brown

Mike Ragogna: Hey Jim, you put together the footage for the DVD/Blu-ray portion of the A Matter Of Trust release, a remastered, expanded monster celebration of Billy Joel's '87 Russian tour. In retrospect, what do you think about A Matter Of Trust's importance at the time and the significance of its being reissued now?

Jim Brown: A couple of things: First of all, rock 'n' roll had been outlawed in the beginning in the Soviet Union. In a way--and I'm making a larger film about this--rock 'n' roll became a way to protest the government and to stick up for individualism. It gathered crowds, the Soviet Union wasn't into religion or anything that gathered crowds other than their own communist politics. It was a very controlled society, and I think that rock 'n' roll offered a wonderful window onto Western values, especially American values and was actually tactically used by the United States through Radio Free Europe and Voice Of America. Billy came along at, I would say, a perfect storm kind of time for accomplishing what he wanted to do, and that was that when Gorbachev came into power he realized that the teenagers in the Soviet Union did not have a lot of faith in the Soviet Union or the Communist Party. Basically, they had resentment, they couldn't understand why there wasn't more transparency, why they couldn't have Western clothes, blue jeans, and especially rock 'n' roll. Gorbachev didn't want to end communism, he wanted to rejuvenate it. I think through glasnost and perestroika he created policies that allowed for more transparency, more freedom of going, and very much more rock 'n' roll. So as that got rolled back, Carter had believed in cultural diplomacy, he had sent The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band over there, there was a period during Brezhnev and Andropov after Khrushchev died where it was kind of hardliners.

Just before the Olympics, they opened up and let Elton John come but he was only allowed to play acoustically, it was just him and a percussionist and no electric instruments, but when Billy came the mood had really chang0ed. He was the first to come of that era from America with a full-blown tour. He didn't want any restrictions, he wanted to be able to go on the same kind of tour that he put on in Madison Square Garden, with the same lights and sound and no restrictions on what he played. No one had been able to do that before. His team made quite a few visits, I'd say eight to ten, setting this thing up. He was in the middle of the Bridge tour, they'd been out a year and at the end they added this element. I think in terms of what it accomplished, the Americans that went over there realized that the Cold War was pretty trumped-up, as Billy said this was a country that loved Americans, the people loved America, and in terms of technology they had a hard time doing toilet paper, considering they were a supposed to be a nuclear threat. He just realized there was a tremendous love between the people of the countries. I think the Soviet people realized that they had also been fed propaganda of who the Americans were.

He went over there with his beautiful wife Christie Brinkley, and his daughter, which I think was an ultimate matter of trust, and basically showed them what Americans are like and what American music is like. He went into sports arenas, one in Moscow and onheh in Leningrad that were really not set up for the kind of concert that he puts on, as a matter of fact there were no orchestra seats. Billy as a performer is very dependent on interaction with the audience. The first show he was sitting there and the Communist party members were in most of the good seats in front, sitting very properly, and then he noticed that some kids were rocking out in the back, so with permission from the authorities, he went up like the Pied Piper and brought people down to the front to create the environment that became standard for the rest of the shows. Before that if people had stood up in their seats there were usually KGB guys pushing them back down, telling them to sit there at an Elton John concert and politely listen. In terms of what it did, I think Billy was at the forefront of the spearhead of a marvelous time. I think rock 'n' roll created distrust with youth of the Soviet Union and it allowed them to rebel against the Soviet Union's politics consistently. The Soviet Union and its leaders really had to acquiesce to rock 'n' roll. First it was outlawed, then they had some American performers who were socialists, but when Billy went it was no holds barred. The two groups worked collectively to put on the concert which was "A Bridge To Russia." I think Billy wanted to touch people, I think his real motivation was, having grown up in the cold war era being very afraid of nuclear extinction during the biggest military buildup in history, I think ten trillion dollars on each side, he thought that maybe music could create a crack in that. I think it did. I think it did. There were repercussions after he left, Czechoslovakia...The Rolling Stones came and played...

In Russia, rock 'n' roll artists were allowed to move freely, not just have official bands, it was a lot less restricted, suddenly, to Americans. I'm sorry to give you such a long-winded answer, but to get where we are today: Up until recently I would think that if you had asked anybody in Russia what their freedoms were compared to under the Soviet Union, especially rockers, they would say, "Much greater." There's a guy in our film who basically talked about how his dreams came true after the Soviet Union fell down. He can now travel pretty freely, people are not checking his set list, the Minister of Culture is not registering every song. Much more freedom. Now, could they overtly play protest music? Well, some did, and there are some who do it today, but basically the attitude today has been somewhat changed by the Ukraine position. A couple of rockers have spoken out against Pussy Riot and against the Ukraine, but I still think that even though there's some fear of censorship, it's much freer than it was before. You're free to play at venues and concerts and the KGB is not going to take you and shave your hair and stuff like that, which is the kind of thing that happened in the past. Any form of capitalism in the past was restricted. You could not have Western records, you could not make a profit selling these bands. There were tremendous bootleg rings going on before Billy came, and the people that bootlegged those records were seen as capitalists and sent to Siberia. I think rock 'n' roll changed things in the Soviet Union a great deal. I recently saw a video of Putin singing "On Blueberry Hill," and I think Medvedev, before his inauguration had a Deep Purple concert. Rock 'n' roll, I think, did give people a window on the West, a window on freedom. What they did with is when the Soviet Union fell was they fell into corruption and greed, I would say. They went from one bad system to maybe not a very good system.

MR: Do you think Billy considered the ripple effect he might have been creating at the time?

JB: I think he understood some things because his team had been over there. Even though Eisenhower and Carter had first opened up cultural diplomacy with the Soviet Union, Reagan was also for cultural diplomacy. There's a guy in the film who he had appointed as a cultural diplomacy ambassador and he briefed Billy and Christie and the band about what they were getting into. The tour manager and other parts of the crew had gone over there several times, so I think they gave Billy a pretty good picture of what conditions were like before he went over. The Soviet government wanted him to come, Gorbachev wanted him to come, so I think he had an idea of what some of the restrictions were on rock 'n' roll, I think what he didn't know was how many friends he would make and how ravenous the population there was for American rock 'n' roll and American values, and how gregarious the people were and reached out to him and his daughter and his wife and the band members and others. I think that really melted his heart.

MR: How do you think the trip affected Billy's creativity after he got back?

JB: Well, he wrote "Leningrad," which was very much reflective of his experience there and the friend in the documentary, Viktor. He told me that it was perhaps the most important thing he did in his life, he can't think of too many others to top it. I think he did it for his daughter. I think he had grown up in a very polarized area. He had just become a father, and I think he did fear nuclear meltdown between the two countries. He had gone to Cuba before with Columbia records and done a tour there and he had seen that music broke down a lot of barriers and gave people a window into our culture, and he took that experience and thought, "Gee, if I go to Russia and do this, it might have some effect." At the time he couldn't really talk about it too much because if he had announced going over there to help the cold war he would've been laughed at, so he kind of kept it under wraps, but he talks more freely about what his true motivations were in the documentary. Also that band, which I think was one of his greatest bands, was coming to a point where people were shifting. It was a finely tuned band that had been out on the road for a year, they sounded great. I would say Billy was at the peak of his songwriting, at the peak of his performing ability, and at the peak of that tour. So not only did it capture something that's of social and historic relevance, but it also captured some very, very good music by Billy Joel who is just a terrific entertainer and was totally blown away by the experience. He talked about how those experiences he was having in the Soviet Union and the way people were interpreting his songs allowed him to kind of reappreciate his own body of work and understand his songs better, because of the way that they were interpreting them, especially a song like "A Matter Of Trust."

MR: I'm sure the bar personally got a little higher for Billy regarding his own songwriting afterwards.

JB: Yeah, he puts his heart into everything. Perhaps at the beginning, he put his heart in too much, he went over to Georgia at first, which is a very pretty area, he wanted to see some Georgian singers and hear their tones as a method of healing and so forth. He got into a little singing thing with them and they kind of got roped into doing a concert vocally, but they didn't have much of a PA system so he blew out his voice. He arrived in Moscow already having given quite a bit in Georgia. The first night of the tour was a little touchy with his voice. To my knowledge nothing in that tour was overdubbed or rerecorded, I think what you're getting is pure Billy, and it's very, very good. And of course his band is great, he always has a great band. You're getting some very exciting performances because as an entertainer the audience is a real catalyst for him.

MR: When your film was played for Billy and Alexa Ray, what kind of feedback did it get?

JB: I've heard he likes it a lot. Billy was pretty hands-off during the whole making of the film, we interacted with his team quite closely, Steve Cohen is his lighting director and artistic director and is basically an executive producer on this film, Billy's business manager Jeff Schock brought us the archives, he was a coproducer on both the concert and the documentary, they pretty much gave us free rein. I was not asked to change anything, or anything like that. I think I told a story that everybody was glad to get out for the first time, one they hadn't been able to tell fully when they went over there in the eighties, and we were also able to include a lot of music that was not afforded in the first concerts which were an HBO hour-long show and we had to rebuild all of the material which had been shot on 35 millimeter cameras and recorded on multitrack systems but had at that time only been transfered from 35 millimeter to one inch, so you couldn't see the real beauty of the shots. It was shot wonderfully, Wayne Isham is one of my favorite concert directors, he was the king of concerts during that time. He did a great job, he had a real a-list crew on the concert, I still work with some of those guys. I think they captured it, they captured the interactions. Billy had a documentary crew there who did a wonderful job and they also were able to get behind the scenes when Billy got the chance to go out and meet people. It was a perfect media event, there were press conferences that were international, literally hundreds of journalists following him around, plus the documentary crew and hundreds of people that he had brought over on his own dime. He knew there was no way of making a profit, he could only take rubles. There was no way that you could take a large amount of money out of the Soviet Union, and that wasn't his motivation. Billy's a real history buff, he wears his heart on his sleeve and I think he was really just trying to be good for mankind.

MR: As a multiple Emmy award-winning filmmaker, how do you think this stands up to your other works?

JB: It was a thrill to work on something so historic and with a star as great as Billy. Always as a film maker we're looking for a good story and good characters. I think we got both. Most of my work is in music, and we've got one of the best musicians in the world at a time where he was under some pressure to do something really wonderful and he pulled it off. To me it was honor to work on something so exciting and have such a clear storyline. There was a book written by John Reed that had a lot to do with Marxism and the start of the Soviet Union called Ten Days That Shook The World. In a way, that was what Billy did. He had probably about ten days over there that shook the world.

MR: Jim, you get the traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?

JB: Well, it's interesting, I was a gala for my friend Peter Yarrow, from Peter, Paul & Mary for his high school, which was the school for the performing arts that was featured in Fame. He was reminding the students and very famous graduates that attended this gala that to be an artist is to move people with art. That's the first goal. To invite them into worlds that they haven't been into, to show them things, move them emotionally, these are really the most important things we can do as artists. The things that a lot of people become concerned about, like fame and money, are really not the job of being an artist. Being an effective artist is to make people feel things and see things and perhaps even change things in the way the world is and to be a catalyst for that. I think the best music comes from those catalytic situations. There was a lot of good music made in the sixties because it was catalytic, a lot of good music came from the Soviet Union during that time period because it was catalytic. There's probably a lot of good music coming around all over the world today. I think sometimes we in America get over concerned about the professionalism of the music business and less concerned with the idea of what it means to be an artist. I think that would be my advice to young artists; I teach it at the film school at NYU, at Tisch, I'm constantly reminding people that the fame and the glamour that gets celebrated in American life is really secondary to our mission of informing and getting people emotional about things and trying to teach them things.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Brann Dailor

Mike Ragogna: Brann, let's talk about all things Once More 'Round The Sun. This is a follow-up to The Hunter, a pretty successful album. How is this music-y career path thing going for you so far man?

Brann Dailor: I think it's going swimmingly. It's going really well. I'm confident about the album and overall confident about all things Mastodon. We just came off of a very succesful three-week tour between albums, that's not always the easiest thing to do but it was really good. I think we're playing better than ever and singing better than ever, ti's fun.

MR: Are you noticing things that are really gelling now because of these different circumstances?

BD: I'm not really sure. It just seems like it's gotten tighter. I noticed it in our trip to Australia a few months ago. I don't know what happened, but we all kind of settled in and elevated. That's how I feel, anyway, I'm sure there are a lot of people that would beg to differ, but I feel like the performances got a little better, we all have our little vocal warmups that we do before the show, we're just trying a lot harder to deliver instead of go out there, vocally flub it and then afterwards be like, "Aw, man." I feel like we're taking more control and trying harder to deliver the goods that our albums promise. It's always a work in progress for us, we're three reluctant singers, but I think it's better than ever at the moment, I look forward to the next couple of years and proving to people that we can sing live.

MR: [laughs] Some people worry, "They can make records, but how many machines are working behind them on stage?"

BD: Yeah, a lot of bands have Pro Tools and all the rigs going, so everyone thinks that they're that f**king good, but they're not. Almost every band I can point to, I know that there are tracks going on, there's all the backing track vocals or even main track vocals going on. So much of that stuff happens and we're so reluctant to join that, even thought we know sometimes we listen back and go, "Yikes, that was pretty bad," or, "Oh my god, we're just not hitting that note," but we just say, "Okay, we'll do it better next time," not give in and say, "Oh well, I guess we'll just fire up the tracks." People would know at this point, they'd be like, "Oh my god, the vocals sound so good there's obviously no way they're doing that. So we're just giving it the old college try. We really do care about it and want it to sound awesome, but we want it to be authentic. If we're screwing it up then it's us screwing it up, you know what I mean? We are out there and we are trying, but we definitely don't want to resort to the tracks, you know what I mean? They sound great, I've got to admit I'm jealous sometimes that they have it like that. "That sounds perfect, because it is the recorded version."

MR: But then again, are fans going to the concert to hear the CD?

BD: I don't know; nowadays it may be. I think they're getting so used to the perfection that that's the bar. But that's fine. I feel better walking off stage, personally, even if I hit a sour note, because it was me doing it, trying my hardest to pull it off. There's something about it, I remember watching Guns 'N' Roses live at The Ritz and there were some sour notes; it's definitely them live. It's unhinged. It's not perfect and I like that.

MR: Who were your influences?

BD: Growing up, I guess my mom's band first and foremost. She was in a rock band that did a lot of covers when I was maybe three or four. They had practice at my house and when I was a kid I thought my mom wrote all of those songs. They basically just played these funtions where they'd have to have about ofur hours of material, so they had everything in there, they played everything form teh Go-Gos to DEVO to Rush, anything that was popular in the early eighties, this was probably 1982 to 1985 or '86. Everything was in there from Loverboy to Judas Priest. That was a huge influence, obviously. Like I said, they played every night and as I got a little bit older bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe were the bands that I was first attracted to, the imagery was super cool, they always had monsters on their album covers and I was a little kid so I was into that kind of stuff.

MR: You know what's great about your particular paradigm is that you not only learned the vocabulary of music from your mother, but also how to write songs--and a lot of them--based on her band having to keep learning and playing lots of sets. That had to be a great education.

BD: Yeah, I think so. I guess I always played music and it was always a part of me, but when I was smaller I had a lot of fleeting ideas for careers. I wanted to be a ninja for a little while, and then I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. Drums were always there, but I wouldn't play them for six months and then I would say, "I want to play my drums again!" and I'd get back into it. It was not until I'd hit about eleven or twelve that I really started play them every day and get a little more serious about it. Then I started having friends come over and play with me. It was a very social thing for me, it was a way to hang out for even longer and do something that was fun, learn a Metallica song, or try learning an Ozzy song or whatever, whatever the guitar player that got dropped off at my house knew how to play, that's what we'd play.

MR: How did the songs on the new album come about? Were they created on the road?

BD: A little bit. There's a lot of different ways that they come about, but yeah, writing doesn't really stop altogether when you're on the road. It's a little harder to write because it's harder to get everyone together in the same room on tour and sit down and concentrate on an idea, everyone's got their whatever going on, "I'm going to go to this record store," "I'm oging to go get some food," and people are kind of exhausted anyway, but I found that Bill [Kelliher] was writing a lot on tour for him and hit newfound sobriety, he was really trying to find himself out there and figure out what he was going to fill his time with if it wasn't going to be drinking or whatever. So he found a lot of time it helped him to just sit in a room and get his guitar and his ProTools and have his headphones on and just riff, riff away. A lot of that stuff found its way onto the new album. By the time we got home and started to dump all of it out and start sorting through everything he had a veritable cornucopia of riffs. A sizeable banquet of heavy mettal riffage. So there are tons of good stuff in there, it's fun to sort through it. Then Brent [Hinds] always has stuff because he's constantly going to, so luckily at this point in time there's no shortage, the well isn't dry yet. You kind of keep waiting for it to happen. A lot of artists kind of hit that wall. We didn't really hit the wall, but we're always nervous that it's going to present itself. I guess you sort of have to trust that the songs and the material will reveal themselves eventually. Part of my process is being really worried that it won't.

MR: Yeah, but I have to say that you just came off of a top ten album and this one is primed to be big too, there's all sorts of stuff lining up for you, so I'm wondering if that worry is an eternal thing. Do you think there's always that nagging, "It could end tomorrow" voice in the heads of successful musicians?

BD: Of course! I would imagine. I mean, it's there for me, I would imagine it's like that for almost everyone. There could be a thousand comments on a song saying how great it is and there would be one bad one and that one will just stick in your craw and make you feel really bad about it. But yeah, ultimately you get up on stage and perform because you want to make people happy I guess, and get that ego stroke or whatever.

MR: I'm imagining performing also makes you very happy.

BD: I really, really enjoy making the record and having the finished product, that's one of my favorite things in the whole world, the whole process from start to finish, seeing how things reveal themselves and being excited about it together. You know what I mean? Being really excited about a piece of art that we made together. It's a wonderful feeling and really what keeps me coming back.

MR: This is your sixth album, what separates it from the others in your mind?

BD: It's got about two to three years' separation from the other albums. That's about it. Every album is the exact same in my mind, it's all the perfect snapshot of where we are as people and the different things that have happened in everyone's lives are what affects the sound of the album. If something sounds rushed it probably was, and if something sounds like we spent more time on it then we probably did because we could. But we like to put out material, you know what I mean? We don't like to sit on stuff and labor over it for too long because then it kind of gets away from that perfect snapshot that we're looking for. When we look behind us we want to have that extensive body of work and we want to have the right amount of work at the end there to look back at and say, "Okay, that's a pretty good timeline of where we are and who we are as people when we put this stuff out." I know a lot of musicians and friends of mine who are constantly retooling, they're just in the studio and songs become years and years old and they never see the light of day and it's like, "Man, you should've put that out years ago, let everybody gobble that up and then give them some more."

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

BD: I wouldn't know what to tell a new artist these days. The only thing that I know stays true is "Make sure that you like what you're playing, because you might have to play it for a really long time." Don't get into the music business thinking you're going to be rich and famous, because you probably won't. Get into it because you love your friends and you found some people that you're musically compatible with and you're excited about the music that you're playing and the art that you're creating and have that be the sole purpose that drives you to do this. If it's money and fame that's few and far between. It's more and more of a rarity, especially with rock and heavy music. So that's my advice. Do it because you love it.

MR: And what about you? Were there moments where you thought, "This isn't going to work," and somebody said to you, "Buck up, buddy?" What was that person's advice?

BD: No, I don't feel like that ever happened to me. I was never under the impression that Iw as going to make it as a rocker, I just kind of kept on rocking. [laughs] There's a naiveté involved there, an ignorance. With Mastodon I didn't see it getting much further than the bar band stage, and I thought that was a pretty good spot, when we were touring with High On Fire, I thought, "This isn't bad, I could do this. Come home with a couple grand and then when it's time to get a real job I'll get a real job." But I liked the music, and we kept having hints, good reviews, and then things worked out. It's been fun. Hopefully life is long, and hopefully I've got another forty years of hanging around, so what's next?

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne