Filmmaker JP Olsen on Tav Falco

Some questions are easier to answer than others.  If your question is, “Who is Tav Falco?” there is no easy answer.  In their new short film, Tav Falco – Make Me Know You’re Mine, filmmakers JP Olsen and Kristen Nutile capture Falco as he prepares for the opening of a U.S. tour with a band that includes bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, firehose, The Stooges) and drummer Toby Dammit (Iggy Pop, Swans, The Residents).

But this is not a typical documentary and Falco is not a typical subject. Seen strolling down St. Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village, Falco pronounces, “I am interested in that which is not easily explained, that which is mystery.”  It’s clear to see that he’s not giving up anything too easily.

Tav Falco’s music is a menacing swagger of swamp boogie, rockabilly, rural blues, misguided tangos and obscure rock-and-roll gems – a transgressive cacophony played through trashy amplifiers buzzing with feedback.  It’s the greasy, raunchy kind of rock-n-roll that Falco grew up on, which he describes as “sexual music that brought boys and girls together in an exciting way.”

I recently sat down with JP Olsen to discuss the film. Olsen, a writer, musician, and filmmaker is also HBO’s production executive for Vice News Tonight and the Vice documentary series. His previous documentary was The Narcotic Farm (2008), a film narrated by Wayne Kramer about the federal narcotic hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

What’s up with Tav Falco and shoes?
They’re sexy aren’t they?  He dresses for success.  A number of times when we were filming, he got compliments, like,“That’s a fine suit, sir!”  He totally elicited compliments.  Put a camera and a boom mike around Tav Falco and everybody is paying attention.  The way he dresses is like, “Look at me. Check this out.”  It reminds me of what I imagine a Saturday night in Memphis in the 1950s was like.  People are showing it – it’s not about holding back.  It’s about letting people know you’re a colorful cat.

How would you describe Tav Falco?
Tav grew up in a small, remote area of Arkansas, several hours from any major city. Despite that kind of upbringing that was pretty isolating and remote, he was (and is) a big reader and very interested in the outside world.  Growing up, he said that TV was very much his window on the world.

Tav Falco

Tav Falco

He is a product of things like B-movies, but I suspect, though we never talked about it, of quite good education.  I know that he went to the University of Arkansas at a time when very interesting artists and writers were there.  He’s coming out of a Southern tradition, eccentric for sure.

He’s cordial, writes with a flourish. He’s kind of what you’d imagine; he’s a character from a movie, a guy from the South, from a certain time and place, but with this other sort of element—almost a dangerous aspect to what he’s doing, without being violent.  His music has a kind of menace to it, but it’s all part of this larger vision he has.

When did you first become aware of him?
I was in a band in Columbus, Ohio in 1987 and I would hang around the local record store. I saw a photograph of him sitting on a motorcycle with a woman and it’s shot in front of a rickety porch with all these local Memphis families.  To me, that photo is a pretty intense statement about art and class and perception of what’s proper and what’s not.  I could tell from the photo that he was embracing a lot of things that most people would consider trash…would discard.

Tav Falco on a motorcycle in Memphis

Tav Falco on a motorcycle in Memphis

“”Nothing was directed, no two takes. We didn’t ask permission to go anywhere…we just did it…Tav was was like, `If you wait a second, the magic will be gone!’ And Mike Watt who is in the film was completely on that trip. `No, no man, you just keep going, don’t ask permission, just do it.'””

Then my band got a chance to open up for him, but he had to cancel because his car broke down. Tav was part of my education, getting excited about people coming in from out of town, to put on a show. Columbus was an amazing music scene at that time— Great Plains, Guided by Voices, Scrawl—all of them were in the mix, plus the Cleveland groups.  Cincinnati had a really interesting scene with the Afghan Whigs and there were other bands that were part of that whole scene.  It was very much, in retrospect,a deep subculture made up almost entirely of outsiders, discards and rejects.  That’s what that scene was.

Tav Falco playing guitar

Tav Falco playing guitar

Did you approach him with a film in mind?
The way we got involved with the film was initially I was corresponding with him…he lives in Vienna.  I had an idea for a larger project, but it became clear to me it was going to be almost impossible to do without substantial funding and I didn’t have the time to do that. I felt bad as he’d been so generous with his time. I knew he was coming into town, so I suggested doing a short film.

I got a sense of what his two days were going to be like in New York.  He was taking his amp in for a repair and then getting ready for his show that night. I had never met him, so we showed up with cameras rolling.  It was a weird way to start, but it was kind of cool because there was no planning.

TavCarryingBagstoTaxi from Soft Spoken Films on Vimeo.

I knew he was going to prepare for the show, but I didn’t know he’d be putting on make-up with his girlfriend and talking about how he sees his role in show business as this sort of glamorous figure, not too garish.

The way he presents himself in the film is interesting, but it was really vérité. Nothing was directed, no two takes. We didn’t ask permission to go anywhere;we just did it. He was pretty funny about that. He was like, “If you wait a second, the magic will be gone!”  And Mike Watt who is in the film was completely on that trip.  “No, no man, you just keep going, don’t ask permission, just do it.”  They totally live that way.

What was it about Tav’s whole aesthetic that struck a chord with you?
There was a visual component that just sort of arrested me and then I found out later that he’d worked with William Eggleston, who is one of my favorite photographers.

What you’ll see in the film is that he is completely committed to his Tav Falco persona.  I know him reasonably well at this point and I’m not even really sure where the persona and the person leave off.  It’s almost as if he’s wrapped himself in the persona or the persona is so interesting to him that that’s the way he lives his life.

What did Tav do with William Eggleston?
He was William Eggleston’s assistant for a number of years and he also was involved in this video collective called Televista.  They documented musicians and artists in Memphis in the mid 1970s. Tav and others were committed to doing in video what Eggleston was doing in his color photographs, which is to find beauty in the mundane.

I’ve always wondered how he came up with “Panther Burns” as the name of his band.  Do you know the backstory?
He talked about the name Panther Burns and it having a “poetic gradient.” The short version is that it was the name of a plantation where a panther was hanging out in the sugar cane and was a nuisance.  Eventually the farmers got it cornered in a field and set the field on fire.  When it burned, you could hear the cries of the panther.

Wow.  That kind of goes along with the music which has always sounded menacing to me.
I agree.  I definitely felt like there were two things going on: One, this advertised, knowing show-biz of a certain time and place that he’s very identified with.  Then there’s the reality of what it’s actually sounding like – and it has a menace to it, a strut to it.

Did Mike Watt and Tav know each other before this tour?
I don’t know actually.  I think what happened is that Mike got a call from Tav.  When Mike asked, “Well, who is the drummer?” and Tav said, “I dunno, you choose.” And Watt said, “Well I can get Toby Dammit.”  Tav said, “Well, ok…” So I think Mike as basically the musical director – at least that’s what I assessed from watching it all.

Holy moly – we got there, they were rehearsing, it was the first night they’d ever played together, though Tav had played with two of the other musicians he’d brought from Italy.  But I don’t believe they’d all be together in the same room until the night before the show.  They learned 30 songs and played almost 3 hours, which as a musician, I’m here to say is amazing. And they sounded good. They were totally together.

JP Olsen and Kristen Nutile

JP Olsen and Kristen Nutile

What did you set out to accomplish with this short film?
There’s a part of me that’s embracing the idea that this is like a little whisper of a film or it’s just a moment in time and leave it at that. We’re going to be ok with the fact that nothing extraordinary happens, but we’re going to be present in the moment and then we get to the edit, we’ll be able to construct something that will be interesting and truthful about what happened.  We’ve both worked on projects where there’s pressure to bend narratives.  The expectation for people watching the film is to typically be entertained. That’s all good, but we definitely wanted to enjoy the expression of being present and sitting in a moment and allowing it to play out.

It’s also an homage in a sense to what Televista had done.  In terms of the coloring and the visuals, we looked a lot at William Eggleston’s photos before with the cinematographer and discussed framing and aesthetics and sensibility and were letting that inform the decisions we made.

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Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.