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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

August 23, 2009 at 5:04 PM

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Interview: Lynn Shelton, lover of local music, director extraordinaire

Posted by Andrew Matson

In the above video, Lynn Shelton (director of a still-filming series for MTV called "$5 Cover," which I keep blogging about and stars Seattle musicians, as well as instant-classic feature film "Humpday," the gay sex bromance you must see) describes her relationship with reality. Basically, she takes it and turns it into art, but sometimes while she's still making said art, the art starts affecting the reality it was based on.

It's a feedback loop.

In the video, Shelton tells me her idea to embellish a story told to her by Jason Dodson from local band the Maldives for "$5 Cover" -- a story about how Dodson and Kevin Murphy from local band the Moondoggies rescued a drunk girl from herself.

Shelton thought up a fantasy where Dodson and Murphy, in an unprecedented bout of musical bonhomie, compose a song together and sing it to the drunk girl. Then she went on a promotional tour for "Humpday," and when she came back, the Moondoggie and Maldivian had started a band together and were playing concerts as the Cosmic Panther Land Band.

"I write it, and it happens."

See? Feedback loop.

[Note: She inserts an errant "Cougar" into the band name, but no biggie. I'm guessing the Cosmic Panther Land Band isn't taking itself very seriously.]


In a dark room in the back of Easy Street Records in lower Queen Anne, local director Lynn Shelton ("Humpday") explained what exactly she's up to with "$5 Cover," the series she's currently directing for MTV that stars local musicians.

It'll be out next year. She hopes to finish filming and editing by Thanksgiving.

Intended for release on the internet, and then possibly TV, the series will be 12 episodes, each six- to eight-minutes long, comprised of vignettes and performances. Collectively, the episodes present a single weekend in a borderline echelon of Seattle's music scene where collaboration is rampant and concerts are intimate. For lack of better terms, it's where "indie" meets "underground."

"Some will never make it, some will break out big, some are on the verge," she said. "It was essential that the artists not be Fleet Foxes or Death Cab [for Cutie]."

"$5 Cover" was pitched to Shelton while she was screening "Humpday" at last year's Sundance Festival by David Gale, producer of "Election" and "Napoleon Dynamite." It was his idea to allow the series to be Shelton's idea. She has total creative control over everything.

"I wouldn't have done it if I didn't," she said.

Requirements to make it on the show were simple: An organic connection between bands was necessary - members being friends with or fans of each other was most common, but more tangential connections were also honored, like having worked with the same producer, Shelton said, citing Erik Blood as an example. Every band member had to be "a great human being." Diversity was key - Shelton calls her band list a "rainbow coalition" - and, most importantly, "it had to be music I could genuinely get behind."

The artists Shelton's working with are all especially good, and make notably diverse music, from roots-rock (Moondoggies) to jazz-rap (THEESatisfaction). But the time during which she's worked with them also is special. At the level of local music she's focusing on, it's been a magical summer for recording and performing, full of positive vibes and art for the sake of art.

It's a boon to the documented history of local music, then - and the cultural wasteland that is most of MTV's programming - that so gifted a lightning-bottler is trying to capture so precious a moment. Shelton's artist and fan enough to pull it off.

"I wanted to emphasize the sense of community. There's genuine friendships, and this crazy morass of relationships.... If there's competition, it's the bar-raising type," she said.

Shelton remembered when, post-Nirvana, stalkers infiltrated Seattle. Corporate music industry people. Bands courted the attention in one way or another, by altering their songwriting style or interacting with another band or particular person this way or that. Now that the industry's collapsed, decimated by downloading, she says "the gloss is gone," and thinks people are making music just to make music. That's what her series is about.

And it's definitely HER series. One can watch a previous season of "$5 Cover" at set in Memphis and directed by Craig Brewer ("Hustle & Flow"). Although Brewer was one of the people who set Shelton at ease about accepting the project - "MTV" and "web series" were red flags, she said - her creation won't be like his at all.

"He and I have very different aesthetics," she said, noting her intention is to keep "$5 Cover" rooted in authenticity, as opposed to using Brewer's soap-opera style. "I tried to replace women in their underwear with character-based humor."

Her "$5 Cover" approaches authenticity by way of Shelton's own psycho-journalism. Some might call the process "hanging out and making a movie about it."

Ninety percent sure she wanted an artist on her series, she'd hold a meeting - a feel-out session - at Oddfellows (eat/drink spot in Capitol Hill), or Hattie's Hat (same thing, but older, and the Ballard version), or an apartment or practice space. Bands told Shelton stories. THEESatisfaction's members revealed they wrote a song on the job while pushing carts around a Costco parking lot, for example, and now that's in the series.

Sometimes, Shelton observed stories in real time.

"The [Moondoggies'] rehearsal space was perfectly art-designed," she said. "In their garage, they created a speakeasy." After witnessing members mapping out vocal harmonies, she decided to recreate the scene for the series.

"We spend a lot of time lighting, but once it's lit, they can just go," she said. Outlines are thorough, but lines are improvised. Musicians feel comfortable talking and behaving around her. Shelton said her "very hands-off shooting style" required a "leap of faith" between director and directed. It's a rare talent that allows her to engender that trust.

"I could have been a psychotherapist," she said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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