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.

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.

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