Sound & Vision #25: Brendan Toller

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. Up this month is my discussion with the documentary filmmaker Brendan Toller. While still in his early twenties, Toller released his first feature film, I Need That Record!, in 2008. Via interviews with Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Ian MacKaye, and Noam Chomsky et al., the film examines myriad reasons behind the closure of thousands of independent record stores in the early aughts.

Toller’s latest film is Danny Says, a fascinating documentary on the life and times of Danny Fields. As a publicist, manager, and all-around connector, Fields played a major role in shaping the music and culture of the late 20th century: working with artists including the Doors, Lou Reed, Nico, Judy Collins, the Stooges, the MC5, and the Ramones. Danny Says follows Fields from Harvard Law dropout, to Warhol’s Factory, to Elektra Records, and beyond. The film was awarded Kickstarter’s Project of the Day (out of 5,000 projects), and had its World Premiere at South By Southwest in 2015 where it was named one of Variety’s “13 Breakout Films of SXSW.” Magnolia Pictures will release Danny Says theatrically on September 30th.

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The Rumpus: I thought we might begin by talking about your first film, which makes the case for the enduring value of the independent record store. I grew up in what you might call the CD era, and at some point everyone I knew discarded his or her vinyl records. We were all enchanted by the idea that CDs would sound better, that they were portable, would take up less room than records, etc. You’re a bit younger than me, and I’m wondering what your relationship was to records when you were growing up.

Brendan Toller: I grew up with music and records. My father was a program director at WNHU in New Haven, Connecticut in the late ’70s when New Haven was kind of a hotbed for the New York punk bands like the Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads, who “crossed the border” to play beyond the city. So I was passed down all kinds of records from about age eight on, and I was really into it. When grunge hit I was a really big Pearl Jam fan, and from there I went back on my own and discovered punk artists like Fugazi and Iggy Pop and classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin—I guess you’d say the general fare of what any rock ‘n’ roll infused teen discovers.

Rumpus: So you were listening to this stuff on vinyl?

Toller: Yes, a lot of it. I grew up in a small town called Portland where creative people were few and far between, but I discovered there was a record store just over the bridge in Middletown called Record Express. I encountered kindred spirits there, and it became a kind of beacon of light for me. I think that’s true for a lot of people, especially in small towns. You feel like you’ve finally found your tribe, your community. The record store showed me there was another world out there, and it was possible to climb over the mountain to hear and experience different points of view.

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Rumpus: You and I both went to Hampshire College. One of the unique things about Hampshire is that students don’t pursue traditional majors—instead they design their own interdisciplinary courses of study. Did you come to Hampshire thinking you would pursue something related to music or film?

Toller: I knew I wanted to study film, but not necessarily that it would be related to music.

Rumpus: So tell me more about how those two interests came together and led to your first documentary, I Need That Record!.

Toller: The idea for my first feature film, I Need That Record!, came to me in the summer of 2006. I was at Hampshire when I heard that Record Express was closing. And I just remember the press at that time was saying stuff like downloading is the next thing and record stores are a thing of the past, without giving weight to their relevancy and their fifty plus year run as a major social hub and connection to popular music. This gave me the idea to make a documentary about their importance, and why they were still vital in an age where things were shifting to digital. I started the film when I was still at Hampshire, as part of my yearlong senior thesis. It came out in 2008.

Rumpus: One of the other record stores featured in the film, Trash American Style, was brick and mortar from 1986 to 2007. We learn that their lease isn’t renewed, so the owners take to the road. I was wondering if you consider the record fairs and expos where Trash American Style and so many other defunct stores have migrated to be akin to record stores. Has the vinyl “resurgence” helped independent record sellers to reconnect with the music lovers they used to serve?

Toller: Well, in a way, but I think the fairs and expos are their own thing. For example, I was at the WFMU record fair this year and it was amazing. It was so crowded, but at the same time… it was so crowded. What I mean is maybe the finds aren’t the same, and the deals aren’t the same. But it did have some of the social aspect. I saw so many people there hugging one another, and running into people they hadn’t seen in ages. I ran into Lenny Kaye [who’s been in both of my films] eating pizza over in a corner! It was so much fun, but I don’t think anything can really replace the physical record store.

Rumpus: Tell me more.

Toller: For great record stores like Other Music, which is going to be the subject of a forthcoming documentary, it was all about discovery on a different, more intimate scale. I wouldn’t know seventy percent of what was on the new music wall at any given time when I walked into that store. And finding it there was completely different, and more satisfying, than finding something at a fair or on a streaming service.

Rumpus: Yes, but Other Music went under, as did Rebel Rebel and a whole bunch of other established independent record stores in New York. New York is a tough place to sustain an independent anything these days, but the record stores that can manage to hold on probably need to offer something other than music curation or discovery. Maybe it is that social aspect…

Toller: When I was making I Need That Record! the biggest threat seemed to be competition from the big boxes, which has died down as people generally seem to want to support local, independent businesses more. And, you know, we now have events like Record Store Day, and even Cassette Day. And I think you’d agree that it’s a more meaningful experience to get your music from a record store. I bet you can remember the first album you bought, but do you remember the first one you downloaded?

Rumpus: That’s a fair point—you’ll get no argument from me. I’m only observing that it’s hard to sustain the value argument when it comes into tension with the demand for what’s cheap, or even free, and for instant gratification. And I think there is also an inescapable analogy to film here. Seeing a movie in a theater is a totally different experience than watching it on your phone, but not everyone will experience a film this way.

Toller: For sure! We spent a small fortune alone on mixing the music in six-channel Dolby surround sound for my film Danny Says. Even though we know theaters aren’t the only place films will be screened, we still make them for theaters because that’s how we hope people will experience them.

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Rumpus: Let’s talk more about Danny Says—Danny Fields doesn’t appear in I Need That Record! but I understand your documentary about him grew out of that project.

Toller: Yes, when I made I Need That Record! I didn’t have music industry connections, and pretty much everyone in the film was someone I’d contacted through Myspace. But I was dating a photographer at Hampshire at the time—her name is Ariel Rosenbloom—and her grandmother, Naomi Rosenbloom, worked with Linda Stein. Linda Stein was the co-manager of the Ramones along with Danny Fields. Naomi was this kind of older, classy New York socialite, and she insisted that I meet Danny.

Rumpus: Did you know much about him at the time?

Toller: I was really nervous about meeting him because I knew he had managed the Ramones, but I wasn’t the world’s most knowledgeable Ramones fan. I was crazy about the Stooges, so I went ahead and we met for an interview. As it turns out, our interview was less focused on record stores and it never made it into the film. But Danny was such a fascinating subject, and an amazing storyteller, at he was at the nexus of so many watershed music and cultural moments! We became friends, and about two years later I pitched him the idea of working with him to tell his story, and miraculously he said yes.

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Rumpus: Danny Fields is definitely a fascinating guy. The actor John Cameron Mitchell refers to him in the film as a “handmaiden to the gods,” and it appears deserved. But you also get the sense from the film that he’s a world-class talker. In my experience subjects who talk can sometimes be as difficult as those who don’t. I’m wondering how structured you were in your approach to interviewing him? Did you come in with a script or just turn on the camera and let him talk?

Toller: [Laughs] I just want to say first of all that getting him to talk with me at all was just a dream and I never thought it would actually happen. Just being friends with him, having him regale me with stories about the Stooges, and about breaking John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” quote, that was enough for me as a rock ‘n’ roll fan. But to be able to spend so much time with him over the last seven years has been even more incredible. Danny creates context, and can unravel any situation from any perspective: socially, economically, spiritually, et al. It’s his smarts that have probably placed him at the right place, right time so many times. He’s opened doors I never even dreamed existed, and he’s also done that for so many others.

Rumpus: So it sounds like you didn’t think of the interview in formal terms at all. I also notice when I watch the film that the lighting appears natural, and there doesn’t seem to be very much intentional staging, wardrobe, makeup, etc. Aesthetically it reminds me of something Roberta Bayley discussed in a recent installment of this column. She was talking about photographing the Ramones, and how she got the shot of the band that later appeared on their debut album. Rather than setting it up as a “professional photo shoot” she more approached it as hanging out with them and informally taking a few pictures.

Toller: I’m giving away some of my secrets, but yes, I think when you come in without a giant crew and gear you often have a better shot at putting people at ease. From the technical standpoint, I think all you really need most of the time is a camera, a tripod, and a few microphones. I’m much more of a story and content person than, say, visual. Of course visual follows, but it’s always the story that’s driven me to any film.

Rumpus: I think that approach, and the belief that creativity trumps technical virtuosity, goes along with the ethos of bands like the Ramones and the Stooges.

Toller: Definitely. Form follows content.

Rumpus: One of the other strengths of the film is that Fields comes across as complicated. He has absolute trust in his own taste, and consequently he has disagreements and conflicts with others. You don’t try to run away from that or sanitize his image.

Toller: I see Danny as someone who invented himself and then helped to invent the culture. I think his first twenty years or so on this Earth were pretty hard and lonely. I don’t know that he had many friends or mentors. And I think he sees that in other damaged souls, people who want to be accepted whether they’re a pop star or a waiter.

Rumpus: So how does he go about figuring out who’s worth elevating?

Toller: The Doors he sort of walked into [when he was working publicity at Elektra]. Jim Morrison in ’67 was probably a pretty easy sell as a sex symbol. But at the same time nobody had really seen a performer like that, and for Danny it was about being the publicist to break it, to be there at that “American Poet” photo shoot where Morrison was shirtless with that necklace on, creating that image that’s in everyone’s dorm, still to this day! He’s also the one who took the negative to Howard Smith at the Village Voice who printed it the next day. And you also have to remember there was no bidding war for most of the other artists he worked with in New York. Punk hadn’t really taken off yet, but Danny nailed it with the idea that groups could take their lack of virtuosity and make it their own. “Anyone can do it.” That’s a criticism and part of the allure. It’s the personality and nuance in each attempt that makes it captivating.

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Rumpus: Yes, and in fact many of the punk acts he worked with have gone on to become legends. Can you anticipate anything that’s happening musically today that will be of interest to documentary filmmakers, say forty years from now?

Toller: [Laughs] I don’t think that’s predictable, but then again I don’t capture much of the zeitgeist either. I’m not the tastemaker or talent spotter than Danny is. He’s still discovering people who three years later are the next big thing. But for me, most of the music I like is from the ’50s, the ’60s, and new bands with a retro sound. So maybe for me it’s more about what’s worth preserving than discovering anew.

Rumpus: When someone has a new release of any kind, the typical final interview question is: what’s next? I’m not going to go there, but I’d like to close with a slight variation. You’re still early in your career. Is there a dream project that you’d like to do, not necessarily next, but someday?

Toller: Yes, many! For one, I know that the Replacements have shot some of their reunion shows and have been at least organizing footage. I’ve started making other documentary pitches—we’ll see what sticks. I see myself being involved in the music realm for a long time. It’s what I think about all day, every day. It’s like what Seymour Stein said to me: “Rock ‘n’ roll is my life and it has fortunately given me a life.”

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BONUS MATERIAL

Watch the trailer for Danny Says:

Listen to Brendan Toller’s playlist from festival screenings of Danny Says:

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Photograph of Jim Morrison © Joel Brodsky. All other images provided courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Brendan Toller.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →