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Anyone Can Play Guitar – Interview with the Director

Lisa Ward

Triangle

With the UK tour of Anyone Can Play Guitar now under way and the DVD on sale, MTTM caught up with Director Jon Spira to find out more about why it felt important to cover the history of a small town who never quite makes it on to the musical map.

MTTM Anyone Can Play Guitar focuses on the music scene in Oxford, a scene which is often over looked, why did it feel important to document the movements of the cities musical history?

Jon Spira Well, I’ve been around it since the early 90’s and a part of it for the last decade and it’s never made sense to me how come cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol are recognised as having a musical heritage when the truth is each of them essentially produced a handful of bands, making similar music, for a short period of time. Oxford has quietly been churning out genre-defining bands for the past twenty-something years and has never been anything less than prolific and high-quality during that period. Nobody outside of the city has ever really acknowledged that.

MTTM Sugergrass, Radiohead, Stornoway. Oxford has some big names but also many other who haven’t ‘made it’ so to speak. Which bands do you think should have been more well known than they were and why?

JS The obvious answer would be The Candyskins, whose unbelievable story of bad luck forms the spine of the film. Along with that – Dustball, The Nubiles, The Mystics, The Rock of Travolta, Beaker, The Bigger The God, The Anyways, Suitable Case For Treatment – there’s too many to list – they should have been more well known because they were amazing. They were of a quality that had they had proper record company backing, they would have been huge.

MTTM Oxford is currently known in the media for the Blessing Force names, but who else is there on the current scene who aren’t linked to Blessing Force that we should be keeping our eye on?

JS Well, I can’t believe that The Family Machine aren’t nationally adored, Dive Dive are my favourite live band in the world and have gone unnoticed through three albums (most of them also serve as Frank Turner’s backing band), Borderville are a crazy glam showtunes rock band who have just released a concept album based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Alphabet Backwards are the best feel-good pop band out there, there’s Richard Walters who is our much beloved troubadour. Little Fish are just mindblowingly good. Spring Offensive are really good. Hot Hooves have just released their first album – roundhouse kicking the boundaries of middle-aged pub-rock. The other excellent old-timers band is The Relationships. Huck and the Handsome Fee – amazing. Ute just split up but their music is still about. It’s still a damn good scene round here.

MTTM The films covers the changing hand of the Zodiac, now the O2. Do you think this has changed the music scene and if so for better or worse?

JS Well, it’s hard to say. It’s been a few years now and although those of us who loved it still miss it terribly and the O2 is a fucking horrible place to see gigs, I think we’re just starting to get a generation of bands through who were too young to go there or didn’t consider it terribly important. I think it’s a huge shame, personally, and hate to see venues so corporatised.

MTTM In your blog you cover some of the tensions that came with making the film. Was there ever a point where you thought it simply wouldn’t happen, and what made you keep pushing on for its completion?

JS Constantly. I still don’t think it’ll happen – we’ve just put the dvd for sale on the website and if we don’t sell a certain volume, I’m going to be plunged even deeper into personal debt than the film has already pushed me. Nothing about the process has been particularly easy but… I don’t know… it’s been hugely enjoyable. I really enjoy the fact that nobody makes films like this and I got to make the exact film I wanted to make in the exact way I wanted to make it and I own the film outright now it’s finished. There was no executive interference, no commercial pressure, no deadlines that weren’t self-imposed. It was worth all the struggle to retain full control of something I cared passionately about. And it was never not going to be completed. I love it too much for that and enjoyed making it immensely.

MTTM You talk about having to cut things from the film (music, images and footage) due to cost. Was this a frustrating process and do you think the music industry will ever move to a point where bands don’t need big companies behind them in order to have success?

JS I can’t even convey how frustrating it was. I made the decision to finish the film how I wanted it to be and then chase the clearances. I stand by that choice creatively but it created a lot of work for me and, especially, for my producer Hank Starrs. It was also heartbreaking losing footage that had been in the film for several years at the last minute. Every single photos, song and piece of footage had to be signed off. A lot of this stuff (photos of local bands from 20 years, for example) was just unclearable – nobody could remember who’d taken the photos often. But we worked hard and we found the people. Sometimes they were generous with us, sometimes they were total dicks. One particular famous NME photographer of yesteryear took the time to send us lengthy emails about how it wasn’t worth his time to sign a release form. I think it’s already possible for bands to work outside the big companies. What needs to happen in all realms of the arts is people need to stop aiming to become rich and famous and just aim to make a living.

MTTM  It seems as in many senses the independent approach to music is increasing (especially with sites like bandcamp) but at the same time independent shops and festivals, such as The Zodiac, your own store Videosyncratic and Truck Festival are all being hit by the competition of the corporate giants. Do you think that whilst in some sense the internet is giving some bands a helping hand, it’s also taking it away with the other now so much stuff is available to download?

JS It’s an inevitable shift from the high street to online and we’re in that difficult transitional stage. I’m not bitter about having to close my shop, you can’t fight progress. I do think that if artists are to have any shot at surviving this, issues of intellectual property have to be properly addressed and resolved. Having just spent five years of my life and all of my money on making this film, the idea of some twat ripping it and a bunch of freeloaders watching it for nothing just sucks. It’s all theft to me and, yeah, you can argue that stealing from a huge corporation is a lesser act then shoplifting a failing indie store but if you take for free something that the legal owner expects to be paid for, you’re a thief. And a dick. I’m hoping we’re moving to an age where we all take pride in paying the artist directly for work that we enjoy.

MTTM When I first arrived in Oxford, I spent several years assuming there wasn’t really a music scene and then I stumbled across a copy of Nightshift and discovered it was a thriving city. It’s always left me with a sense that Nightshift is what holds the scene together and keeps it moving along, do you agree or disagree and why?

JS I agree wholeheartedly and it actually upsets me that Nightshift is such an institution within Oxford that it gets taken for granted way too much. Ronan Munro has devoted his life to the documentation and promotion of this community and the magazine has been around a lot longer than even most of the current musicians. I do think that without it, the scene would fracture and probably be a much less cohesive and inclusive thing.

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