Interview: Jagjaguwar shape-shifts as Sundance’s ‘The Comedy’ gets a pick-up

One of the most defiant films I saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year was director Rick Alverson”s “The Comedy,” a title oozing irony but boasting a weird, wooly ensemble that includes Tim & Eric, LCD Soundsystem”s James Murphy, actress Kate Lyn Sheil and comedian Jeff Jensen. The film itself was sort of a f*ck-you to traditional, protagonist-led dramatic narratives. It was built off of an 18-page treatment with almost all of it room for improvisation, and little-to-no script .

It is funny, yes, but loosely angers, too, with Heidecker”s perfectly portrayed 35-year-old Williamsburg ass-clown who won the birth lottery and has a boat. He and his idling creative division of friends fill their time amusing themselves sometimes to the discomfort of others – not because they”re malicious people, mind you, but because otherwise they just might get bored. Heidecker”s dead-eyed lead voyeuristically dabbles in the world of hard labor and “normal people” jobs like washing dishes in between drinking, screwing and playing wiffle ball.
Just because the film is largely unpleasant doesn”t make it a bad film. It”s not. Heidecker”s numb repugnance also reveals a child-like soul. He”s the sort of guy I wouldn”t be friends with but, yeah sure, I”d go to his party if he threw one. It darkly reveals something in the viewer, which required such a strangely familiar cast and, even more so, the backing of its vision.
Independent record label Jagjaguwar was that backer, in conjunction with Glass Eye Pix and Greyshack Productions. And after “The Comedy” bowed at Sundance this week, it found a partner in Danny McBride”s Rough House Pictures, which formed in 2009 to produce/present high-end comedies.
Jagjaguwar, mind you, isn”t known for movies. It and its sister labels Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans count Bon Iver, Okkervil River, Dinosaur Jr., Antony and the Johnsons, Akron/Family and Yeasayer among its powerful ranks. Last year, SeCa released its first comedy album, Tig Notaro”s “Good One.” The labels” co-founders linked with Ami Spishock last year to form Fort William Artist Management, with the likes of Grizzly Bear, Beirut and Van Dyke Parks, among others under its arm. The labels have their own distribution company (SC Distribution, which is also works with many, many other indies), their own publishing and do deals not just in the ‘States but also internationally.
Chris Swanson co-founded Secretly Canadian in 1996, and has helped it branch out along the way. He”s also been a major supporter in Alverson”s career: before he made “The Comedy,” he also had Jagjag”s support for his first film “The Builder” (also the label”s first expedition into movie releases) and Will Oldham-starring “New Jerusalem.” And before those, Swanson”s labels released records from Alverson”s bands Drunk and Spokane.
On the eve of the Rough House Pictures announcement, I had a chance to talk to Chris Swanson about all the impressive developments, his vision of his labels and helping to develop “The Comedy.” Below is an abridged version of our interview:
How did it come to pass that you”d start helping to make Rick Alverson”s movies?
It goes back a few years. We”ve worked with Rick closely for over 15 years. We became really close and when we”d get to gether we”d spend half our time talking about music and half talking about movies. He was really all about making quiet complicated movies, so whe he gave us a call three years ago, halfway done shooting a film [“The Builder”], I was compelled.
He”s all about the awkward, quiet moments, and his records are very much of that ilk. We started financing “The Builder” halfway through. It was a very small budget, and we put out the DVD ourselves. Or rather, we stumbled through that ourselves.
Does this mean Jagjaguwar will be producing more films?
We”re not looking to get into film, per se.
The soundtrack and actors in “The Comedy” were very familiar to fans of your labels, and of music in general. People like Will Sheff (Okkervil River, Shearwater) and (producer/songwriter) Richard Swift were in there. And James Murphy was a bit of a surprise. Did you have a lot of influence when it came to casting and filling out the film?
When it came to James, I liked the idea of bringing in a charismatic musician who isn”t known for acting or anything. Were were trying to find somebody who knows how to work a stage and has a stage-like presence, who still has that kind of tension of not knowing what to do in front of a cameray. We were lucky because Tim and Eric knew him.
I was the music supervisor on the film, so that lent itself to a lot of collaboration, onscreen and off.
How did you feel about the audience reaction to the movie at Sundance? There”s got to be a difference between seeing an audience react to a film versus an artist.
I was very pleased, because the material pushes boundaries so hard. I wasn”t sure how they”d react to that. I know the intention wasn”t depraved. I don”t find it that bleak, and I heard as much laughter. There were plenty of walk-outs, too. A lot of people go into it not knowing what to expect.
People walk out of musical performances all the time. To walk out of a film … it”s a confrontational act. A passive resistance on the behalf of the movie-goer. It can come off as a very abrasive, antagonistic.
Do you have any expectations of how it will do in the commercial marketplace?
I don”t know. It depends on the release strategy. Goal number one is a picture that will resonate over time. I think it feels like a film that will last, it”s not shock cinema. It”s a performance-driven picture that will kind of transcend the time. I loved the idea of it playing beside “Tim & Eric”s Billion Dollar Movie.” Their performances in “The Comedy” show different sides of their ability, the dramatic side.
What was it like putting out your first comedy album on the label?
It was so fun. We look forward to doing more with Tig. It was a no-brainer. She really wanted us to use our own approach to it.
Could you send it to market in the same way?
People consume comedy in a much different way. They really center on stuff like YouTube and podcasts. Music fans feel like they need to see the live performance, buy the album or the song, be in an experience. With comedy, you could very much be a fan and not buy a comedian”s album. What we spent marketing [Tig”s album] was scale-appropriate.
Often times, comedy comes off as a Hollywood thing, more like showbiz. With comedy manifesting as an album, it shows that it is as much an art as rock ‘n” roll.
So do you think you might do more comedy?
Honestly, it hasn”t even occurred to us. We”d love to. It”s just a matter of timing being right, waiting for a spark of inspiration.
You guys have put out a lot of side projects from some of your signees like Justin Vernon”s Bon Iver  plus Gayngs and Volcano Choir. Is it quicker to sign off on those projects, or do the records still have to go through the same vigorous criteria in order for you to sign off on them?
It”s a balancing act. It”s like being in love, like a relationship, a romantic relationship with artists, with whom we want to be as wholistically involved as possible. Just putting out any side project isn”t always in the best interest. Of the relationship. We”ve passed on some projects even if it”s something we like. Like, we could see this doing well, but it”s not connecting with us in a deeply personal. Or sometimes we”re really busy and we can”t accommodate.
So example of that could be Here We Go Magic versus Luke Temple”s solo albums…
Absolutely, that”s a good one. He also has a longstanding relationship with Western Vinyl, so there”s that pre-existing thing.
A lot of labels are exemplary of certain contract processes. Like Touch & Go with handshake deals, or Merge and 50/50 splits with artists… do stand by a strict way of getting business done?
Touch & Go, Drag City, Dischord, all those guys hugely inspired us. In ’96 for the first several years, we were firm believers in handshake-only. It was to be part of a tradition, we felt like it was a political aesthetic. After doing that for a few years, we discovered it is possible to write down and memorialize an agreement. It”s a healthy process to articulate the deal, so in the late ’90s we moved toward written contracts.
That”s a very interesting term, memorialize. Does the process differ between veteran bands and new ones?
It doesn”t differ much from our big bands to our brand new bands. We believe in our model and stick largely to 50/50 and multiple albums.
And as they get to be bigger bands…?
I think the amount of money we spend increases greatly. There”s simply more opportunities to spend and reach new fans. That”s we”re still half partners, sometimes in worldwide deals… That”s part of why we”ve branched into artist services. It”s an added value to artist work.
All the while, you”ve kept operations out of Bloomington, Ind. Why there as opposed to moving the labels to New York or L.A.?
We love the town. It”s beautiful and an uncommon place to live. The quality of life is high, the cost of living is low. It”s a great place to run distribution because it”s in the middle of the U.S. We do have five full time employees in New York, three in London, some in Austin, Seattle and Pennsylvania… With our core base in Bloomington, it gives us a slightly different perspective on the business. We also travel like mad.
What are your feelings about Bon Iver”s Grammy nominations?
Of course, the Grammys are exciting, and part of a long tradition… It was great to participate in a record as far-reaching as “Bon Iver.” It was a nice shock but it still feels like a really natural sequence of events. He”s reaching so many people.
When you picked up “For Emma, Forever Ago,” it was a complete work, you just had him do some overdubs and extra tracking and things. Is that how it normally goes when you first pick up an artist?
Yah, it”s common that the first album we put out is the first work we”ve heard from someone. What was uncommon is that… it had so much buzz. That is uncommon. It”s fun to watch records have their unique way with people.