A couple of years ago, artist and fledgling filmmaker Ben Wolfinsohn got a call from his friend at KXLU, Loyola Marymount University's student-run radio station in Los Angeles. Wolfinsohn has a taste for weirdo music, and his friend figured the band getting ready to play an on-air set was right up his alley: It was two guys from Denver, one of whom played guitar while the other beat discordantly on drums and held a microphone in his mouth.
"When I got there, they had already finished the set. The entire building was filled with smoke; it was screaming out of the windows. There were all of these firefighters there," Wolfinsohn recalls. "I asked them why they would put on such an elaborate show for radio -- it's not like anyone could see them. The drummer said, 'We're putting on a show. We didn't want the one DJ that was here to be bored.'"
The band was Friends Forever, the anarchic art-punk act that's best known for bringing its own venue to every show it plays. Drummer Nate and guitarist Josh tour, live and perform out of an orange Volkswagen van, the belly of which serves as a staging ground for the light-and-magic shows that accompany the band's fearlessly raw live performances. Most of the Friends' local gigs take place outside underground warehouse environs like Monkey Mania, although unsuspecting crowds have caught them performing on the sidewalks in front of such traditional venues as the Bluebird Theater, where the Friends recently showed up and astonished a post-Melvins mass.
Although Wolfinsohn missed the band's actual performance at Loyola, since then his life has revolved around Josh, Nate and their van, a temporary autonomous creative zone that houses a smoke machine, a shitload of fireworks and two dogs. The vehicle has a starring role in Friends Forever, Wolfinsohn's full-length documentary about the band. Shot during an eight-month period in 2001, when the director tailed the Friends from Las Vegas to San Luis Obispo, Denver, Boston, Rhode Island and points in between, the eighty-minute film has been screened at the New York Underground Film Festival and the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin; it's currently enjoying sporadic airtime on the Sundance Channel. And in early March, Brooklyn-based Plexifilm Company will release Friends Forever to retail on DVD. (Plexifilm's catalogue includes Style Wars, a breakthrough documentary about the graffiti movement originally released in 1983; in April, the company will handle I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Sam Jones's wonderful film about Wilco.)
Friends Forever offers a fascinating glimpse of a band that technically hails from this city -- but falls into none of its more conventional music-export categories. In the loose narrative, Nate and Josh navigate a tenuous existence between genius and loserville. They're inspired, fearless and brilliant in some scenes, especially when performing; at other times, they're self-defeating, nihilistic and depressing. At one point, Josh makes himself throw up and beats himself in the head with sound equipment as part of an on-stage act. The two spend much of their time on the road espousing a thoroughly un-bandish approach to creative life. "We're here to save the world from what rock and roll has become," Josh says in the film's early moments. "The battle is far from being won. There's a lot of blood to be shed. So we're nervous." While touring -- often traveling hundreds of miles to perform just one show -- they refuse to sleep on friends' floors or use their showers for fear of imposing. They show up at each performance about eight hours early in order to stake out the best parking spot. They regularly knock down the prices of the tapes, records and T-shirts they sell after each gig.
"Nowadays it seems like so many kids are trying to go out and do their thing. To get signed. Everyone has their own demo tape," Wolfinsohn says. "These guys take it five steps further than anyone else. They care more about what they are doing than anyone I've ever met. They'll go to any lengths to play a show. They will literally drive halfway across the country to play one show that lasts twenty seconds. Anyone who thinks that they have passion behind their music...they need to see these guys."
Friends Forever may never be a band that's seen or appreciated by lots of people. The music is a haphazard symphony of sound: artful but unskilled, assaultive and sometimes tough to listen to. The band's Web site, ngwtt.com, promises that a forthcoming EP will be "unhearable." (Two soundtracks for the film -- one by Wolfinsohn, one by the band -- are also available through the site.) But while it's sometimes hard to take -- beware of scenes involving the Friends' friends drinking puke or discussing saline abortion -- Friends Forever may have a niche among cinemaphiles, cult lovers and fans of docs like Vernon, Florida. The film has already been reviewed favorably in Spin, Film Threat and the L.A. Weekly, which described it as an "energetic illustration of the true artistic impulse."
Friends Forever includes cameos by the dearly departed Rainbow Sugar, Denver band Bio-Bitch, Astrology Songs creator Harvey Sid Fisher, blind solo artist Sal Three Fold and a fellow who espouses the virtues of smoking crack cooked in urine. See it for yourself on Thursday, February 27, when the movie is screened at the Climax Lounge. The curtain goes up at 11 p.m., following the 9 p.m. airing of a Twin Peaks episode. We await the sequel.
An offer you can't re-fuse: The fireworks- fancying members of Friends Forever aren't the only ones with a burning interest in concert setups these days. Following last week's horrific tragedy at the Station, the Rhode Island club where almost a hundred concert-goers died, the City of Denver issued a statement proclaiming that its fire and safety departments are working together to ensure that area clubs never go the Great White way. The Denver Fire Department, for example, is encouraging club-goers to report blocked or locked exits to 911 and has vowed to step up its unscheduled inspections of local entertainment halls.
That news no doubt rattled the nerves of club owners, who routinely risk penalties to pack in a few more bodies on busy nights.
And even in venues with ample space and plenty of emergency exits, the atmosphere was a little tense in the days following the Station blaze. At Friday's sold-out Audioslave show at the Fillmore, for example, a uniformed cop hired to work the show confessed to feeling haunted by images of the previous night's inferno. "This place is packed," he said, surveying the crowd of 3,600. "Frankly, if something were to go on in here, I'd be scared as hell." Asked where he'd be watching the performance, the officer pointed to an illuminated exit sign: "You'll find me right by that door."
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