We know – and love – Mark McNulty’s dazzling, super-charged portraits of the city’s musical heroes. For the past two decades, the man’s documented our sweatiest of nights, the La’s in the park, Ladytron in Japan, and Sound City across the globe. But he left his heart in Nashville. And his latest project sees McNulty take the logical next step: music videos. Tender, raw and intimate, the films act as antidote to the big, bombastic MTV million-dollar productions. Capturing the soul of the music, and the joy of performance.
David Lloyd talks to him about his latest exhibition, Honky Tonk, which tells the story of one such collaboration: with Liverpool folk troubadour and ex La, Mike Badger. But for a complete immersion in McNulty’s exploration of blue collar folk, and Liverpool-meets-US bar-room blues, head over to his excellent site, Routes Jukebox
What prompted the move to movies?
From the mid 1990’s I shot a long term photo project about the Berlin Love Parade and, the sheer scale and noise at times, had me frustrated about not being able to get across part of what the event was about so I bought a MiniDV camera and experimented with that. What I shot was a bit messy but when I started to learn how to edit, I fell in love with the whole process and I’ve been making videos for myself for the last five years. However, at some point over the last few years, I’ve started to film some of the more roots based musicians working out of Liverpool and that’s sort of what’s evolved into Routes Jukebox. It’s sort of been an organic, unhurried process that’s suddenly starting to gain momentum and focus.
The videos are lovely – very intimate: more like documents of something fragile and delicate than big, bombastic music videos. What’s your aim, when you set out to record?
When I film, it’s purely about capturing the best performance I can from the artist though I do like to try and find environments that suit both the artist and the song. I also set out to strip down the visual chaos that’s sometimes associated with music videos and if the music’s unplugged, acoustic and a little more reserved then the visuals should be too.
How did the partnership with Mike Badger begin – and what is it about his work that turns you on?
Before Routes Jukebox became a web based host to a series of performances and short films, I’d started to think about making a single documentary that featured some of the musicians making roots based music in Liverpool and Mike Badger was one of the artists I wanted to include. Never having met him, we both found ourselves at SXSW in Texas and decided there could be no better place to start filming.
Tell us about the filming process – and how it differs from your stills work.
Technically they’re worlds apart and the last couple of years have been a steep and ongoing learning curve with editing and sound recording being the biggest hurdles. However, on an aesthetic basis, I’d like to think that I treat both in the same sort of way. I work mostly in a reportage way with strong subjects who I allow to shine through and not be covered in processing and effects. And it’s nice to have a bit longer than 125th of a second to get the story across.
Country, roots, folk – call it what you will – Liverpool seems very responsive to it: what is it that attracts you to it?
My mother used to play lots of Irish music in the house and my dad loved country. The whole Irish scene was very influential on the American roots scene and I think it’s that thing of songs crossing back and forth across the Atlantic that I find quite fascinating. I’ve had friends from Nashville loving local artists like SJ Downes for singing Mississippi John Hurt songs that they don’t get to hear back home, then the same people sitting up late at night in Liverpool singing Beatles songs or seeing Mike Badger teach people in Texas how to play Dirty Old Town. I like all kinds of modern music and I listen to northern soul, classical, techno, hip hop and a whole lot of other music but country, folk and blues just to seem to say it louder for me on most days.
What sessions have particularly stuck in your mind?
Well shooting the Travelling Band in Texas sticks in my mind due tot the fact that I got stung by a Hornet just before the shoot, had a snake slithering around somewhere behind me when I was shooting and it was 90 plus degrees but other favourites have been The Secret Sisters when they virtually stopped me in my tracks by singing Your Cheating Heart, that fantastic performance by Smoke Fairies and the new stuff I’ve been doing with Buffalo Clover which will be live soon.
Tell us a little about the Bluecoat exhibition
The Bluecoat Honky Tonk show features a 13 minute film that I’ve put together about Mike Badger and how it took two trips to the States for him to form a band with musicians who live in the same city as he does and it was shot on tour and at home. It features musicians from Austin, Nashville and Wavertree and it sort of sums up the whole ethos of what Routes Jukebox is all about. It’s also a proud moment as it’s something I’ve been working on for along time and, whilst a lot of my editing is done by a brilliant editor called Brainface, this film ‘Ashtrays & Table’s’ has been done entirely by myself.
What’s your ambition for the whole Routes Jukebox project?
Well it’s always been about documenting the folk, blues and country scenes in Liverpool and beyond but it’s also about mixing up the work of both local, national and international artists from those scenes and sitting the well known next to the unknown. The main thing is just about creating a fantastic Jukebox of beautiful music but if I can help get people signed in a different country or picked up for a support tour then I’ll be well happy. Personally for me though, it’s all about learning something new and just seeing where it takes me.
The Bluecoat, School Lane
Fri, 22 Jul 2011 – Sun, 18 Sep 2011
You can see all of Mark McNulty’s music videos on his Routes Jukebox site.