up close and personal
KLRU's docu-series Hardly Sound examines under-the-radar Texas music andmusicians
Popular bands are no strangers to having probing, psychologizing profiles written about them, but it's rare when such treatment is given to acts who have barely begun climbing the success ladder.
It's precisely those under-the-radar bands that KLRU's new series, Hardly Sound, seeks to examine. In this half-hour docu-series, director and creative force Christopher Kim hangs out with five underground Texas bands to profile their music and talk with them about the creative process.
But Hardly Sound isn't your typical music doc. Kim ventures beyond the usual questions with his subjects, avoiding what's-that-song-about discussions. He opts instead to get personal, seeking out what drives these individuals and uncovering deeper stories.
The episodes are also packed Kim's with very personal voiceover, offering commentary as he reveals the musicians' stories. In print, that may sound horribly self-involved, but it serves the series well, adding a layer of storytelling that's both funny and imbued with a vulnerable charm.
In the first episode, Kim goes birding with Jeff Somers of Austin's The Bye and Bye, discovering Somers studied biology in addition to being a rebelious punk rocker in high school, and together, they save a turtle. A more cursory profile could easily miss such a moment, but Kim instead keeps filming, letting it reveal Somers to us.
Despite his hectic work schedule, we sat down with Christopher Kim this week to talk about how the show came to KLRU and what interested him in discussing the creative process with artists in the first place.
CultureMap: How did this project came about?
Christopher Kim: Hardly Sound started as a web series that Randy Reynolds and I did about a year ago. At the time, he was in the band Leatherbag, and I met him through his drummer, Dan. They wanted to do a video — just a basic set up of them playing in a yard — and the band recommended me.
For whatever reason, Randy liked my visual style and he asked if I’d be interested in doing the same thing in a recording studio. That became the first episode of the web series. Then we just kept going, taping bands that we both liked.
One day we were literally on the way to shoot a band and Randy said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we eventually got this onto KLRU?” And I just said, “Yeah.” He pitched it to them not long after and they said yes. So the next thing I know, we’re going to be on TV.
Which is perfect, because I know that if I had pitched the same show, frame-for-frame, I wouldn’t have gotten it as far, because I’m a bit of an awkward mess around people like that.
CM: So it pays to have a producer that knows all that you can do.
CK: Exactly. Randy is by far the best collaborator I’ve ever had. Whatever blind spots I have, he's got covered. I'm confident in my ability to make the show and handle the creative stuff. What I'm not good at is making phone calls and talking to KLRU and basically selling them on the show.
But even more so, his greatest value as a collaborator is that he trusts me completely and I trust him completely.
I remember telling him that I was getting kind of bored with the web series, because essentially it was just us recording [bands] in the studio. So I said, “Randy, I kind of want to take this in another direction. I want to make it a bigger show, focus on storytelling and people and less about the music.” And immediately, he said, “Yeah, let’s do that.” He’s given me incredible creative freedom and I think that comes with trust.
Anytime I say this, he deflects it, but Randy is the reason the show exists.
CM: You dive into a lot of nuts and bolts about the creative process. What interested you in discussing that with these bands?
CK: Well, a lot of it is that I’m trying to figure out how to be creative and not live in a box, myself. So I just want to see what my peers are doing, essentially. Like a guy that’s in five bands and works in a crappy dive bar, I want to know how he survives. And a lot of them are like me; they’re just barely getting by in terms of money, but they’re happy because they’re doing what they love.
CM: Often in documentaries, quote-unquote objectivity is almost fetishized. But in Hardly Sound, you’ve brought more of yourself to the voiceovers, which actually makes it much more relatable. What was behind that decision?
CK: I think in documentary, objectivity is over-emphasized and deemed as too important. The literature world has the whole sub-genre of creative nonfiction, and I don’t understand why more documentaries don’t do that. Because to me, that’s more relatable than a dry retelling of the facts.
Ultimately, what it’s about for me is telling a story, and the only way that I can tell a good story is if I tell it with my voice. Not telling a good story was never an option because it’s boring. Even if my work is nonfiction, I want to make sure than when people watch it, they’re entertained — that at times they’re moved or they laugh or they’re just sucked into the story. I don’t think that’s exclusively meant for fiction filmmaking.
Part of it, too, is that I never wanted to make documentaries because of that expectation of “you’ve got to tell just the facts.” I think this is the only way for me to tolerate doing this is if I do it this way. Otherwise, I’ll just stop. Because then it’ll be boring for me as a creator.
CM: You spent a lot of time with the bands you're profiling, and you're bringing out what's really interesting about them as people. Tell me more about that process.
CK: My method, when I’m working with these individuals is to (number one) spend a lot of time with them. Having worked on other documentaries, I’ve realized that a lot of [filmmakers] will exchange a few e-mails with the subject and then sit down with them once or twice and talk about basic things, like, “tell me about your past work. Tell me about your future work,” and they only scratch the surface. So I’ve learned to spend a lot of time with the person, getting to know them.
Something I’ve learned from listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast is: don’t try to conceal your emotions and don’t try to stand above what’s happening. A good example of that is: the first time I saw the Bye and Bye, who are featured in the first episode, Jeff felt like it was a really bad show. His guitar was buzzing, they started an hour late and then played a really short set. And I could tell he was really upset.
So when I went home, I sent him this really long e-mail reassuring him, saying, "I know you feel like this was a bad night and this is going to look bad, but you're the protagonist of the story. My job is to tell it so people are on your side."
There’s something almost too open about talking to someone you just met that way, but what the show is doing to me is forcing me to be willing to open up that quickly to other people. Maybe Jeff in the hands of any other filmmaker would have revealed the same information, but I think there’s something to it that I was just there to tell his story. I felt like that really contributed to him being willing to tell me his story, which is actually quite interesting.
If I show my vulnerabilities, then they’re willing to show theirs. I think a lot of that is just being willing to spend time with them and getting them to be comfortable with you and vice versa.
CM: That definitely comes across in the final product. So this is the first season of the show, but what about after that?
CK: We haven’t talked to KLRU about a second season yet. But even if KLRU decides not to continue airing the show, I’m going to keep making it. I’m having too much fun and it’s too creatively fulfilling to stop. I never thought I’d enjoy this kind of filmmaking, but I do, and I don’t intend on quitting.
Hardly Sound airs monthly during KLRU-Q's 11pm Monday night music block. You can see the next episode on Monday, October 1, and also watch episodes online after they've aired. If you'd like to get involved, they're also raising funds for the show's post production.