Few musical formats have had the comeback narrative that vinyl has in the last decade or so. A new documentary film, Vinyl Nation, explores the enduring appeal of LPs and the subculture that’s grown around them recently — including the rise of Record Store Day. I talked with directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone to learn more about the film’s origins and how the project came to fruition.
For the documentary, you spoke with musicians, engineers, producers, DJs, record store owners, and academics — among many others. Was there a particular challenge as far as finding the right scope for the film — covering all aspects of vinyl while still keeping things moving briskly?
Kevin Smokler: Definitely. We knew all along we wanted the movie to be 90 minutes (feels about right for a documentary) and vinyl records have a bad reputation as a subject that the faithful can drone on about forever. So “keeping things moving” was always right at the front of our minds.
We interviewed 45 people in making this movie, all of whom we pre-interviewed on the phone ahead of time. I’m happy to say they all appear in the final edit of the film, some a lot some a little. But since we couldn’t include everyone equally, we try to make sure to speak about all of them evenly when we do interviews and talk about the documentary publicly.
Chris Boone: Honestly, trying to squeeze 45 interviews into a 90-minute documentary, not counting on-the-fly Q&As with folks at Record Store Day and Austin Record Convention was our main challenge in making this film. But choosing the title Vinyl Nation before we shot a single frame meant covering the nation as best we could. So we outlined our intended narrative into “album tracks,” asked particular questions to specific characters based on how we thought each person would fit into the narrative, then leaned heavily on the expertise of our editors Jason Wehling and David Fabelo to tease out the key moments that helped us tell the story and hit the emotional notes we wanted. Then we just kept cutting from a 5-hour assembly down to the final film. The previous cut before the final cut was actually too brisk, so we added a few moments back into the timeline to let the story breathe.
When, for you, was the moment you realized that you found vinyl compelling as a listener?
Boone: Before I ever owned a turntable as an adult, I always thought that Side One of U2’s The Joshua Tree was the perfect side of an album. I thought if I ever owned a record, that’s the one I had to have just so I could listen to Side One. When my wife bought us a turntable, she bought me a used copy of The Joshua Tree as my first album. Dropping the needle on Side One of that album reconnected me to music in a way I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager, rekindling my love of sitting and listening to an entire album (even a lesser Side Two of an album).
Smokler: For me, my first turntable, which I purchased, as an adult, used, because a musician I knew was trying to get rid of it fast, came with a set of old speakers from about 1987. I didn’t know anything about speaker technology and still don’t, really, but apparently these hulking, deep brown boxes that looked like the stumps of Banyon trees were some enduring classic make of speaker because I put my first record on that old turntable (“Perfect Angel” by Mini Riperton) and it sounded like Miss Riperton, deceased since 1979, was sitting in the room right next to me.
Do you find there to be an inherent paradox that most people will watch this film about a very analog process through digital streaming?
Boone: Yes. Even though I am the pragmatic one in this filmmaking duo, I brought up the idea of creating a film print of Vinyl Nation on more than one occasion with Kevin because of this very paradox. I always started by saying, “I know this is a completely stupid idea, but since we’re making a movie about records, what if…?” And I always ended the conversation by telling Kevin, “Never mind, I’m just being an idiot.” I didn’t even need Kevin to try to convince me. I just needed to say these crazy things out loud a couple of times to get them out of my system. With the pandemic, making a film print would have been that much dumber of an idea! But if wishes really did come true, I’d love to see Vinyl Nation on 35MM in a theatre full of strangers. I’ll always prefer film to digital.
Smokler: Ultimately, we decided our movie is less about a technology and more about the human connection music creates. For VInyl Nation to reflect that, we needed anyone who wanted to see it to be able to see it with as few hurdles as possible.
I was impressed by the array of people you spoke with; was there anyone who you encountered problems with getting access to?
Smokler: We had some scheduling difficulties, where, as a small film, with a small budget, we only had a day or so in each of the 14 cities we filmed in (Chris and I don’t live in the same place so there was that complication too) and if we couldn’t schedule someone for the exact window of time we were in their city, we had to let that interview go. We also decided pretty early on we weren’t going to seek out super famous people to be in our movie because we didn’t have time or resources to spend weeks trying to schedule interviews via agents and publicists and, since we decided on the title Vinyl Nation pretty early, we’d kind of labelled our movie with a WPA notion of representing “the nation” which meant regular people.
Boone: Some people were easier to track down than others, but that’s mainly because they’re so busy. I know we had been trying to get a hold of Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records through a variety of connections for a while. I think Rob Maushund at Stoughton Printing may have been the one to ultimately help us connect with Ben. When we arrived to film Billy Fields at Warner Music Group, Billy was literally talking to Ben on the phone while we set up in Billy’s office, and I think we were still trying to nail down a time to talk with Ben! All that said, Ben was one of our most fun shoots and one of our film’s biggest champions from the moment after we wrapped his interview. We’re grateful he’s part of Vinyl Nation.
Did you have a favorite observation about vinyl that your interviewees made? I will say I’m partial to John Vanderslice’s “This is some Zork shit,” myself.
Smokler: That’s a great one. I love what John says right before that. “There’s something holy about the whole thing. 12x/12, 33 RPM.” As if the fundamental numbers that make up records are somehow brought to us on the wings of destiny or something.
Boone: John Vanderslice was great, start to finish, and he’s a total sweetheart, too. I loved his reverence for vinyl combined with his contrarian views that vinyl isn’t necessarily better than other formats like cassettes. Kelley Stoltz’s line, “I’ve never been stunned to find an MP3,” is priceless. But I’d have to say Ashleyanne Krigbaum talking about hoping that the conversation continues between her records and making sure her records are touched and enjoyed after she’s gone hit me hard in the room. That was special and completely unexpected. That moment still hits me hard when I see it in the film.
How has making this film affected the way you think about music?
Boone: Meeting such a diverse group of people who all love records of all different kinds revealed that I have so much more exploring to do in terms of genres of music. And records are such a great way to explore music. Especially when someone gives you a record that you’ve never heard before and insists that you must listen to it.
Smokler: I didn’t really believe you could bridge the divide of music taste before we made Vinyl Nation. I just figured if you loved The Staples Singers and somebody else didn’t, that was kinda the end of the conversation. The truth is, people who see records as their preferred way of listening to music are seekers, always looking for a new avenue to explore and understand and hear music differently. So if they don’t care for The Staple Singers you can probably hook them on something Staples Singers adjacent which is probably adjacent to something they like and then you realize when you set these false differences down, they really aren’t there at all. I’m not going to pretend Lizzo and Beethoven are doing exactly the same thing but it’s a lot closer than we think it is. The unbridgeable divides are largely in our imagination. Lizzo and Beethoven are probably thinking about them a lot less than we are.
The film opens with a crowded record store with a band playing inside — all of which feels so distant right now. What’s it been like to revisit this film at a time when both record stores and live music have been going through so many challenges?
Boone: When we started making this film, we thought we were making a film about inclusion that also happened to be about records. When we handed the raw footage to our editing team, they quickly discovered that we had made a film about human connection. It’s bittersweet not to be able to watch our film with audiences and share stories about records after a screening. But I’ve been blown away by how many personal connections we have made with people all over the country who have reached out to tell us how much they enjoyed watching the film and how joyful the film made them feel, especially the scenes of Record Store Day and Austin Record Convention with so many people gathering together, laughing and smiling, showing off their record hauls. Not only does the film remind us of the people and things we love so much, but I think the film encourages us to reach out and support the places we love in our communities like record stores, arthouse cinemas and live music venues. These places make our neighborhoods, towns and cities so special. They need our support now more than ever.
Smokler: We’ve tried real hard, through virtual get togethers, zoom town halls and just communicating frequently via social media with our supporters and friends, to not make Vinyl Nation seem like a postcard from the past. I think we can only succeed so much but we have every intention of actually bringing our movie to the people who have been good to it once it’s safe to do that. I know things won’t be exactly the same then and it feels like we’re doing this movie completely backwards (i.e. showing it at home then film festivals then in theatres) but we know the day is coming when seeing VInyl Nation will be as public and communal as the scenes of record people being with each other in our movie feel. We just gotta be patient.
Vinyl Nation is available digitally at www.vinylnationfim.com until Nov. 30th.