Interview With Chelsea Christer, Director of “Bleeding Audio”

by on October 20, 2020

Chelsea Christer

San Francisco-based film director Chelsea Christer comes full circle this week.  Back in 2005, Christer was a teenager growing up in “a small conservative town in the middle of Colorado.”  Attending the Epitaph Tour’s concert at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, she had never heard of The Matches.  The original weirdness of this Oakland-based band’s music instantly impressed her.  The Matches’ post-set chatting with audience members and their wearing handmade clothes just like her set the stage for their becoming Christer’s new favorite band.

Now, 15 years later, the stars have figuratively aligned to bring Denver, Christer and The Matches back together again.  The Denver Film Festival starts up on October 22.   Christer’s feature documentary “Bleeding Audio” is one of the festival selections.  The film recounts in intimate detail the story of how The Matches went from promising Next Big Thing to break-up to rebirth.   But it’s also a sobering look at the music industry changes that now de-emphasize risk-taking.  “Bleeding Audio” comes to Denver having racked up consecutive Audience Award wins for Best Documentary at Dances With Films and San Francisco DocFest.

Christer may be new to the world of feature documentary-making.  But she’s not new to making documentaries.  She’s directed and produced short films for such clients as Adobe and Picture Atlantic.  Her jobs have taken her to such places as Amsterdam, Kerala, and Melbourne.

Beyond Chron recently talked with Christer via Zoom.  The Zoom window displayed Christer’s trademark blue hair but not whether she was indulging in her very pronounced fondness for black and white clothing patterns.  This sadly meant that playful remarks about the director’s similarity to anything-black-and-white fan Laura from Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” would have to wait for another day.

Making “Bleeding Audio”

Christer traces her “a-ha” moment in making her first feature documentary to free marketing videos.  When the director learned The Matches were reuniting, she offered to make “VH1-style ‘Where Are They Now’ videos” for the band.  The idea was to make the reunion “as big and exciting as possible.”  But it was during the preparatory interviews for the videos that something happened.  She says, “As I learned more about their [the band members] story, I heard about the trials and tribulations they went through as a band.  While their story was inherently very unique, it was a story that a lot of bands had been going through in the digital shifts.  When the second show sold out in seconds and went from a reunion show to a reunion tour,” that was the sign of a special story that needed to be told.

The director momentarily pulls back the filmmaker’s curtain on one of “Bleeding Audio”’s best moments.  The Matches are filled with self-doubt about popular interest in seeing them reunite for a show.  But their candor at seeing the show crazily sell out in literal seconds in front of them quickly washes away those doubts.   That enjoyable moment may have been literally the first footage Christer shot for the film.  But that footage actually captures the added second show selling out.  Canny placement created the illusion that viewers were watching the very speedy selling out of tickets to the first reunion show.

Even after the idea for making “Bleeding Audio” crystallized in the director’s mind, the band members’ famous modesty was both a help and a hindrance.  Christer recalls, “They said why at first.  I had to convince them they were worthy to get access.”

Once she got open and honest access from the band, the director was surprised by The Matches’ “cavalier” attitudes towards such career highs as being part of the Vans Warped Tour.  Christer says, “They kept saying [their accomplishments] weren’t that big a deal.”  “Bleeding Audio”’s director got around that problem by bringing in other interviewees to do the onscreen boasting for The Matches.

Even after the band’s members consented to take part in Christer’s project, it still took six years to bring “Bleeding Audio” to the film festival circuit.  Even Christer’s prior experience in doing short fiction films and documentaries couldn’t surmount some unexpected challenges.

The biggest of these headaches turned out to be financing.  Christer says, “It was hard to get financing for a film about a band not too many people had heard of.  Having successful Kickstarters helped.  Working on a small budget also helped too.  But I had a massive story to tell and I was living in San Francisco.”

The director doesn’t need to state the unfortunate truth about the high cost of living in The City.  Fitting in time for making “Bleeding Audio” “after hours or while trying to survive” provides enough of a context.

“Love in her heart” for The Matches kept Christer going on the project.  That feeling helped a lot in dealing with documentary making’s “many moving parts: deciding when to stop filming, who to interview, scheduling interviews.”  For example, when The Matches started recording new music for a 2015 EP, Christer spent six extra months recording those sessions.  Yet the realization that the footage wouldn’t fit because “the story was still living and ongoing” led to the director’s tough decision to not use any of the footage in the final cut.  The EP’s new songs, though, can be heard on the film’s soundtrack.

Christer takes pride that “Bleeding Audio” is very much a Bay Area product.  She says, “Our film and the crew was 90% Bay Area people.  I was able to use Bay Area crew when we were filming locally.  I worked with (finishing house) CTSF.  They did all of our color correction, design, title treatments.”  San Francisco’s Disher Audio And Sound is another name Christer mentions.

Inevitably, financing “Bleeding Audio” meant going to the maxing out credit cards stage.  Fortunately, that recourse wasn’t needed until Christer had a picture lock.

Christer does have some hard-won but crucial advice for filmmakers who want to follow her down the feature filmmaking road.  The shorter bit of advice is “When life happens, this project should still be a part of that life.”

The longer bit of advice is “If you embark on making any feature-length film, you need to 100% vet your producer.  They need to be more experienced than you.  Or at least be able to hold the torch when your arms get tired.”  While several amazing producers helped Christer at various points in the making of “Bleeding Audio,” having one consistent person for a 3-10 year project is better.

Christer sings the praises of producer Erin Persley, especially for the multi-layered roles (e.g. therapist) she took on.  Persley “came in three years into the process.  Holy f**k, I wished I’d found her three years earlier.  She helped connect me with great collaborators, kept me in check, and provided a guiding hand to keep everything moving.”

The Matches And Christer

The director’s first encounter with The Matches’ live show was under inauspicious circumstances.  The band had recently signed with Epitaph Records and went on the Epitaph Tour.  Christer says, “I actually went to see (the headliner) Motion City Soundtrack.  Some other band that will not be named had opened before The Matches and they were Terrible.  My friends and I were judgy and being teenage assholes.  Then The Matches come on.  We went, ‘Oh great.  So what’s the next band we have to get through before we see Motion City Soundtrack?’  The Matches from the very first chord blew my mind and that of my friends.  Their energy was so incredible and their songs were so good.  The ‘jerk kid standing in a corner’ vibe we had turned into standing in a pit full of other people going ‘Who is this band?’.  The thing that sealed the deal was that they (The Matches) came out into the crowd and started selling CDs to people…They were just there as fans.”  Christer’s recounting of this story is accompanied by excited hand-waving.

How much of a Matches fan did Christer become?  The director ‘fesses to having a  collection of Matches posters…which she makes sure to preserve.  The Matches’ T-shirts are also a part of Christer’s fan collection, in a number for which she’s lost count.  The director sees her collection-stopping point as perhaps when the band “stops designing cool shirts.”

Christer respects the Matches fans who’ve taken the step seen in the film’s opening minutes of getting a “Bleed in audio” tattoo.  She says, “Fans generally get tattoos for household name bands.  You very rarely see it come up for bands the size of The Matches.”  But when Christer talked to fans in line for the Matches reunion shows, it seemed every fourth person in line had a Matches tattoo.  She says, “Tattooing is a very personal thing for a lot of people.  To commit to something that lifelong, it means that whatever it was touched you in a way that you wanted to remember forever.”  For the director, those fan tattoos spoke to “the longevity of the band in the hearts of their fans.”  The director’s own Matches-related tattoo, incidentally, is the spray-painted image from the band’s first album on her right hand.

Working to make “Bleeding Audio” a finished film didn’t lessen Christer’s huge respect for The Matches.  She says, “They’re just good guys.  I can’t say enough good things about them.  I knew they worked hard.  But I had no idea how dedicated they were to the band.  This was their whole world.”  In other words, Christer’s work on the film didn’t set off the “never meet your heroes in person” effect.

Beyond Chron asked the director about opportunities that might have pushed The Matches past their popularity plateau.  She thinks one such opportunity could have been the band headlining a tour.  Not only would The Matches have been paid more, but it was a natural progression from their success as an opening act.  The director is diplomatic in discussing the idea of The Matches replacing their manager Miles.  Christer notes that “Miles got them out of the Bay Area.  He had all the ideas and had clever concepts to get them to be Bay Area legends…He even got record labels to come to the Bay Area for them…Without being disparaging, I don’t feel he knew how to get them beyond that.”

“Bleeding Audio” does end on a triumphal note via the reunion tours’ success.  However,  Christer says, “They’re (the band members are) all just kind of figuring it out.  They have lives.  But now they’re able to make this unique and special space for The Matches in their lives.  As part-time rock stars, they can tour when they feel like it not when they have to.  They can still engage the fan base and it’s on their terms.”  Whether The Matches will make a new album falls for Christer into the “can’t say one way or another” drawer.

The Matches And The Music Industry

Beyond Chron noted that The Matches bore one similarity to the ska-punk-reggae-soul-and-a-bunch-of-other-genres band Fishbone.  Both bands got the “how the heck do we market you” question from the music industry.  Christer agrees with the idea that  easy categorization acts as a systemic gatekeeper to stall the careers of unconventional acts like The Matches.  She notes “You get these artists who do something weird and unique.  People don’t understand it because it’s not comforting and familiar.  Either those bands get swept under the rug or they inspire these other bands to use elements of that creative new weirdness and incorporate it into their music” in what Christer calls a “leapfrog effect.”  The director sees the digital age of music as providing hope to weird outsider musicians “if they play their digital marketing cards right.”  As radio stations and record labels remain risk-averse, “artists can take ownership of those risks creatively and actually start finding their audience.”

One of Christer’s big takeaways from the film is that the old paradigms of success in the music industry need to be abandoned.  She says, “When you’re starting out, touring makes sense because you’re acting as if there’s no Plan B.  But it’s not a sustainable long term strategy.”

That long term strategy doesn’t mean aspiring only to being the next Beatles or Bowie.  Being able to saturate people’s attention so you become a household name is far more difficult nowadays with the flood of new music. Also, record labels’ 360-degree deals make it harder for artists to support themselves thanks to those deals’ cuts into artists’ sole revenue streams.

Christer notes “Everybody who’s successful in the arts today kept going.  A lot of it is luck.”  But “redefining what success means to you” is the key.  “Bleeding Audio”’s director offers some takeaways for new musicians:

  1. It’s going to be f**king hard.  So suck it up and do it.
  2. But don’t break yourself in half.  Touring 300 or even 200 days a year is no way to live.
  3. Set your goalposts to something sustainable that makes you happy.

Some of “Bleeding Audio”’s most enjoyable moments come from seeing The Matches perform in live music venues.  Christer sees live music and independent venues as crucial to  society’s culture.  “They’re a place for people to go and connect with other humans who like the same thing,” she says.

The director feels the Coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous to the live music scene.  Bands whose only revenue comes from touring and live music are stuck at home.  Government relief (the Save Our Stages bill) for the independent venues such bands play at isn’t forthcoming any time soon.  So she worries that in the wake of the Coronavirus, either musicians give up playing, venues to play at are unavailable, or both.  Yet the hunger for the live music experience will still exist.  Christer says, “I know that as soon as there’s a vaccine, I’m going to put it into my neck and go straight to a live concert.”

The discussion of Coronavirus and its impact on live music causes “Bleeding Audio”’s director to reflect.  “I think back to 2005.  I was in this crowd.  I saw this band.  Here I am now promoting my first feature film.  My whole career started snowballing probably from that moment.  And I was just a 16-year-old girl in a crowd at a show.  To think that another 16-year-old girl in a crowd saw something that inspired her to pursue her dreams 15 years down the road…to think she might not get that chance because live music could be a victim of the pandemic is heartbreaking to me.”

(Thanks to geoblocking by the Denver Film Festival, Bay Area fans will not be able to see the festival screening of “Bleeding Audio.”  While future Bay Area screenings of “Bleeding Audio” have not been announced, interested readers can check out the film website at www.bleeding-audio.com to find out more about the film.)

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