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The making of Empty Houses, Empty Towns: a music documentary

When some tragic character finally punches through the sky of their testing world, their audience happily applauds them from Everest, at eye-level.

If you’re the type to climb with your Davids as they mount their Goliaths, you’ll be pleased to find a whole snowsled of underdogs to cheer for in my 22-minute debut music documentary Empty Houses, Empty Towns, which premiered May 13.

It’s a film about the Fraser Valley band Western Jaguar, which I also perform in, on a short Vancouver Island tour with tourmates The Sylvia Platters. More importantly, the film illustrates the wavering propensity to pursue music as a small-time, college-aged band. It’s about deferring the expectations often filled by people of our socioeconomic background. It challenges us, as bands, with the amount of time we can devote towards our music projects in this capacity.

I wanted to create a tour documentary more effective than the reels of candid tour footage typically produced by amateur bands. I found that my film could be unique in that it simply includes a deeper narrative and message, which are naturally absent in collections of candid video clips.

Producing this film required constant awareness in capturing material. I felt that the film would rely on narrative exposition, so I actively noted what people were saying and revealing about themselves. It was a practice I exercised heavily off-camera.

“I wanted to create a tour documentary more effective than the reels of candid tour footage typically produced by amateur bands.”

When I told my bandmates I would be producing this film, I told them that the only way it would work is if I had their honesty. I largely felt they exhibited that virtue.

But the people in Western Jaguar are my friends, and that posed challenges. I knew I had to be unapologetic about the footage I included, even if that footage was potentially unbecoming of a certain person.

Jeffrey Trainor, our principal songwriter, complains in the film that Platters’ frontman Nick Ubels should have been more comprehensive in booking our show at Vinyl Envy in Victoria. Or, he characterizes the would-be-openers that bailed on us in Duncan B.C. as “dicks.” He lightly suggested that I omit the latter. I didn’t. But Jeffrey acted genuinely and that bolstered the film’s effectiveness.

I wasn’t always successful at being unapologetic. When anxiety (and possible food poisoning) prompted Jeffrey to recede into the hostel chambers at The Cambie near the start of our set, I failed to follow him up there. I didn’t know if I should have. Yes, it would have produced more appropriate footage about the conflict at hand, but I’m not confident that an ailing Jeffrey would have appreciated being cornered by a DLSR mounted with a shotgun mic.

By the time I started editing the first cuts of the film, I realized I got so caught up in production that I forgot to ask myself the questions that my bandmates were asking, and the questions about my general identity as a musician. Why am I pursuing music in this way? Is it sustainable? How will I feel if I can’t pursue it this way?

As the other deadlines in life materialize, and push Western Jaguar towards further transience, I’m slowly finding the answers.

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