STEVE: FINDING RHYTHM
"The Summer of Steve: It's Not Music, it's Whammo!"
Video Documentary Concept By
I want to do a documentary about the band, Steve, of which I am a member. Often joked about as more of a concept than a band, the "group" has played together only a handful of times, yet insists on creating albums and videos. Because of the members' differing goals, lifestyles, and schedules, this summer is likely to be the last real chance that Steve has to play together regularly and I want to capture the creative process and spirit of the band as well as the moment in time. There has been much talk among Steve's members of making the most of this summer, playing an independent Gazebo Tour, recording original material, and possibly playing a coffee house or two. The documentary, partly serious, partly parody, will take its audience along for all of this as the summer of Steve unfolds!
“an exploration of community and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity”
Above is the June, 2000 "Video Documentary Concept" I drafted in advance of this project, followed by the May 2004 addendum I wrote around the time I finally began editing the footage gathered during the "Summer of Steve."
Though this documentary was the third feature-length project I'd produced about the creative activities of myself and my group of friends, it was the first I personally approached from the outset with the intention of capturing the elements necessary to tell a story. It's also the first time one of these autobiographical documentary projects actively facilitated the very endeavor being recorded, making it possible and creating the space and circumstances in which to spend time with friends I'd otherwise not get to see as much.
As my good pal (and Long Walk Short Drink podcasting partner) Palmer observed around this time when one of our mutual friends asked how to hang out with me more often, "basically... you have to make a show."
In the summer of 2000, I was working at Wadsworth Community Television, the cable access center prominently featured in this documentary, so he meant that quite literally. However, even then, there was a broader sense in which one had to "make a show" to keep company with me. I spent nearly all of my free time making movies as well. At that time, I had just finished what I thought would be the last of my work on the VHS adaptation of James O'Barr's The Crow that had occupied my creative focus for the previous six years. I was also gearing up to start community college in the fall (at the ripe old age of twenty-one), so I'd taken on a second job at a printing warehouse. From 7AM - 3PM Monday through Friday, I'd work there and then 4PM - 9PM at WCTV. Saturdays were a full day at the studio as well, so when a few of my friends wanted to spend the summer focused on the band we'd started up a few months prior, I proposed practices at WCTV.
Here's how I pitched it to the other band members in a letter dated June 27, 2000:
Because of our varying schedules and lack of corresponding free time the most convenient place to practice is the studio (WCTV). However, as it stands, to use the equipment (i.e. cameras, microphones, editing facilities, or studio) one must produce a program that the station can air. So in order to justify the use of the studio as practice space, we need to make a program. This, of course, is more of an opportunity in my mind than anything else.
About six months before that, an unplanned gathering of a few guys, a few guitars, a harmonica, a kazoo, a triangle, and pair of bongos resulted in an audio/video cassette recording we called, "Steve: Going Nowhere Fast."
All of the guys in the group (Logan, Jackson, Sean) are also in Dreaming Out Loud, an attempted multi-cam concert video-turned-documentary.
Here's me and Sean recounting how STEVE came to be in the opening moments of the "Going Nowhere Fast" video:
Shortly after those interviews were conducted, the other guys returned to their respective colleges while I remained in Ohio working at WCTV. In the meantime, emails were exchanged, and there was talk of reconvening in June for a concentrated "Summer of Steve." As early as February, there was talk of playing a "Gazebo Tour" (our extended group of friends had a habit of hanging out at public gazebos) and recording a new album of all-original songs.
Everything STEVE-related had a sense of humor and absurdity about it. I vaguely remember the guys talking about wanting to make a scripted "arty short" film that opened with someone saying, "I'd like to order a Big Mac, Coca-Cola, and a side-order of rock 'n' roll." If I'm remembering correctly, this wasn't about the band STEVE we were creating. It was meant to be from the point of view of a "character" called STEVE. In one of the proposal documents for what became the Finding Rhythm documentary, I suggest incorporating these segments and filming them with an old 8mm camera I'd bought at a thrift shop. The "arty short" never got past the idea phase, but I did manage to get that "side-order of rock 'n' roll" line into the documentary because Jackson said it on camera to lighten the mood during an especially tense band practice.
Of the three college-going STEVE members, Sean and Logan finished their exams in mid-May and returned to Rittman (the small town where we all grew up) to spend the summer with their families. We must have gotten together to play at least a couple of times around then because I have a cassette recording labeled "Steve practice 5/30/00." Certainly, songs had been written, and we were beginning to work out arrangements.
Jackson was a student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which finished a bit later than the other schools. His home base in Ohio was now Fairlawn, which was about a 30-minute drive away from the rest of us in Rittman. Like me, he was also working extra long hours to earn money for college, and his rehearsal availability was limited.
By late June, STEVE was having trouble finding time and space in which to practice. We'd also landed a gig playing at a friend's party in early July, so there was an added urgency to getting our act together.
Here's where the documentary comes into play.
1999 was my first full-year working at WCTV, and from January to December, I co-produced over 50 programs featuring our extended circle of friends—everything from a movie review show (Palmer's Picks), a midnight movie showcase (WCTV Video Vault), a music video, various visual-aid components for friends' school projects, and two feature-length documentaries (Dreaming Out Loud and Inertia: Re-Making The Crow). Even a Blair-Witch-themed Halloween party ended up centering around a costumed musical performance which was filmed and edited into a video presentation. The prolific year capped off with the three-camera New Year's Eve studio session that created STEVE.
December 31, 1999 - Recording STEVE: Going Nowhere Fast
I was also taking 16mm film courses through the Cleveland Film Society and chipping away at a documentary about the history of WCTV, which had just moved into a newly built facility and was approaching its 20th anniversary.
My bible for all of this non-fiction movie-making was a book called Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos by Barry Hampe. Using this "Practical Guide to Planning, Filming, and Editing Documentaries of Real Events," I wrote up a few things to guide our efforts and leverage our resources—including the following “treatment,” which I presented to the other band members as a letter (or email?) a couple of days after hosting a Sunday practice at the studio :
THE SUMMER OF STEVE treatment 6.27.00
This will be the latest in the seemingly endless line of videos focussing on the creative ventures of our friends. "The Summer of Steve" will be a Mockumentary that details the events surrounding the activities of our band, Steve. Because of our varying schedules and lack of corresponding free time the most convenient place to practice is the studio (WCTV). However, as it stands, to use the equipment (i.e. cameras, microphones, editing facilities, or studio) one must produce a program that the station can air.
So in order to justify the use the studio as practice space, we need to make a program. This, of course, is more of an opportunity in my mind than anything else.
Here's what I was thinking. On Friday, we'll have Brian come along to a practice at the studio from 5:30 to 9:00. While we diligently plow through our set (hopefully several times) Brian will capture the practice on video, documentary style. In addition, he can help us with the technical obstacles that we'll face on Monday, mainly micing the instruments so that they can be heard. This we'll attack, with Brian's help, on Saturday. I've signed out the whole afternoon (12:30 - 5:00) for us to again practice our set, this time with the amplification we plan to use on Monday. All during this time Brian, in between helping us with the equipment (which he should be able to get through one of his bands), will continue to tape documentary footage. Then on Monday he'll come (with equipment) to the party to make sure everything is set up right and during the performance run a B-roll camera (augmenting the one that will set on a tripod in the center) in a situation much like the Cabinfest concert taped in '98.
I'd also like to combine this footage with the Short you guys have mentioned, the one where everything is from Steve's point of view, with Rattle and Hum style group interviews with Brian in the Phil Jouanu role. So "The Summer of Steve" (which will continue to document our Steve activities - though not nearly as heavily - throughout the remainder of the summer) will combine the proposed Arty Short, candid practice footage, footage from KT's going away party (and any other play-dates we may have and are able to tape) and Rattle & Hum style group interviews to create a sort of "This is Spinal Tap-meets-a mock Rattle & Hum-meets Dreaming Out Loud" video that should perpetuate our making the Steve band survive at least this summer, The Summer of Steve.
In Steve We Trust,
The next day, I condensed the letter/treatment into a one-paragraph "concept" and created an "Ideal Shotlist" of about 20 scenarios I hoped to capture over the summer.
As mentioned, my younger brother Brian followed us around with one of the video cameras from WCTV's loaner pool as we prepared for our first show. Brian figures prominently in the STEVE saga—not only because of this but also because he secured our live sound gear and ultimately recorded the In The Event of Rhythm album we were working out way towards.
Cameraman (and later STEVE producer) Brian Ullman
Even though he is four years younger, Brian was racking up studio time and rocking premier concert clubs in and around Cleveland while I was still singing imitative Pearl Jam covers around the campfire. At the time, he was in two bands: Circle of Willis, for which he was the frontman and main songwriter, and Paradigm The Yoyo Crusade with our pal Nick (who would soon join STEVE). Perhaps it was because of all that experience playing in bands, or maybe it was being around and helping out during the four-year Re-making The Crow project. Whatever the case, Brian had an intuitive sense of where to point the camera to capture the emotional content of a situation. He also did a great job of the on-the-spot interviews I ask for in the following paragraph from the wishlist of ideal scenes:
The questions asked in the interviews, which are to be captured whenever and wherever possible along the way (more impromptu than planned) should reflect the true curiosities of the cameraman and should prompt responses that will educate the viewer on matters not otherwise explained visually. If something is not captured on tape, but necessary to understand the events being photographed, this topic must be covered in Man-the-scene-interviews. Interviews should be conducted separately so that the subjects will not omit ideas that they'd seen others express. In these interviews we're looking for how the band is perceived by its peers and how they perceive themselves and what they are doing. Ask vague questions to prompt people to tell stories.
Many of the key moments you see in the trailer above and throughout the first 20 minutes of the documentary are due to Brian's diligence.
Another important contributor came from a new addition to the WCTV crew. Nick Owensby, a Wadsworth High School student, began working part-time at the studio for his summer job. From 1983-2012, WCTV was nestled in the WHS building, and Nick was enrolled in the Media Class taught in the newly built studio class spaces across the narrow carpeted hallway from the WCTV's "Studio A."
Once Nick started working there and filming us, we began rehearsing in the more moodily lit "Studio B."
July 14, 2000 - STEVE rehearsing in WCTV Studio B
It's in this room where some of the most memorable scenes took place, such as "The Worst F**king Note Known To Man" incident and many an "All Along The Watchtower" improvisational warm-up.
Our friend Nick (whose main gig was writing and singing for Paradigm The Yoyo Crusade) had joined STEVE on bass by this time, so we referred to cameraman Nick as "Nick O."
Armed with a Panasonic Pro-Line AG-456 S-VHS Reporter camera, a copy of my "Video Documentary Concept," and "Ideal Shotlist," Nick O. embraced the challenge. The project owes a lot to his personal investment. While my brother Brian had grown up around all the STEVE guys (he was even concurrently playing in Paradigm with Nick), Nick O. was an outsider. This was especially helpful in the sit-down interviews he conducted, as the questions he asked stemmed from his natural curiosity about this new group of people he was getting to know. And because he wasn't helping us with sound or recording as Brian had been, Nick was able to film even more.
At the time, I was sometimes disappointed by the technical imperfections of the footage he gathered, but today I'm just so grateful it exists and that he was willing to engage so fully in documenting our silly band. The material he managed to get of Logan setting up the coffeehouse gig and the local flavor of the street fair before and after STEVE's Rittman Sleepwalker Festival performance are some of my favorite scenes in the film.
After the Sleepwalker show, STEVE focused on recording. As Brian mentions in the documentary, I was impressed by an acoustic song he demo-ed for Circle of Willis at home and asked him to produce our album.
By the end of August, the guys had returned to their respective schools, and I'd started college myself. Brian taught me enough about the Cakewalk home recording software such that I could pitch in on a weekend if someone could come back to lay down a few parts.
The Summer of Steve had come to a close, and though I don't think I realized or appreciated it at the time, we did manage to capture nearly all of the scenarios on the "Ideal Shotlist" list I'd drafted back in June. As with every other facet of the group, everyone pitched in to make this happen.
In addition to Nick O. and Brian's contributions, the band members themselves often grabbed the camera to record and ask questions of each other. In a memorable moment from the documentary, Sean asks Logan's mom what she thinks of her son's music from behind the camera. Steeping her tea with one hand, she gives a thumbs up while also admitting, "I haven't heard it yet."
There's a funny bit in the doc where Sean sits down to record and Jackson is asking him about his song, "Longest Day." Sean says something about it being a "loooong day of recording," and Jackson deadpans, "you've only been here for an hour, Sean."
The dramatic tensions sometimes intensified when band members were behind the camera. In the outing where 3/5 of STEVE are going around Rittman putting up fliers for an upcoming performance, Sean and Jackson chip at each other until Sean looks into the lens and says, "Oh yeah, Jackson, we forgot to tell you you're out of the band."
Jackson, of course, was not “out of the band.” However, I believe the presence of the camera facilitated that direct exchange. It definitely affected the situation when Jackson brought the camera into a fast-food restaurant. As the clerk heads off to consult a manager about whether or not the band could post fliers, a very young—and even younger-looking—employee chases him out of the business demanding he, "put the camera away!"
Once the album recording sessions were complete, we did put the camera away—but not for long.
Enter Ryan LaBo, or "Larry," as we called him. Larry's passion was writing. He wrote film scripts, short stories, essays, poetry, a stage play, jokes... you name it. Larry was in the same Rittman High School graduating class as most of the STEVE guys, and he was among the extended group of friends who hung out at "The Cabin" (as chronicled in the Dreaming Out Loud documentary and often discussed on the LWSD podcast). The day after we created the master CD-R of the In The Event of Rhythm album, we received an email from MrLarryDisco@AOL.com inviting us to be a part of the first issue of a "Spotlight On Local Music" 'zine called HỲP.
Mr. Larry Disco interviewed, I think, all of the members of STEVE, and wrote a track-by-track review of In The Event of Rhythm. In fact, STEVE became the cover story of the first (and ultimately only) issue of HỲP in December 2000.
You can spot Larry in the audience of the winter coffee house performance footage near the end of the finished documentary, as well in the "First Night Back" chapter of the Bonus scenes.
When STEVE reconvened over the members' winter breaks from college, things were similar to the previous summer in that we were all gathered together back in Northeast Ohio and dedicating time to the band. However, the completion of our CD and things like the HỲP feature added a reinvigorating momentum to the proceedings.
The documentary started back up with our pal Palmer stepping in for Nick O. on camera, and Larry planned to observe the practices, performances, and recording sessions to create a companion STEVE book of some sort.
For me, the main difference between the summer and winter was that we then had a solid group of original songs with replicable arrangements. When we couldn't all be together, we could practice along to the CD. Plus, sharing the CD was part of the motivation to get in as many performances as we could, which I think was about one a week. We even traveled to Pittsburgh to play a gig for Jackson's art school crowd, which ended up being STEVE's final show.
There was also an attempt to record five new songs; and though we made some progress, we ultimately ran out of time, and soon STEVE faded into the background.
Nearly four years passed. I moved away to North Carolina... got married... got divorced... Ended up moving back to Rittman and living in my parents' basement for about a year and a half. During this period, I worked 12-hour shifts at a plastics factory and began writing songs for what would become the Dog Days, my first "solo" album.
I also reconnected with Larry. He made a short horror film called "The Safety of The Grave" in which I acted, and during the spring of 2004 we were working on another short titled "37 Lights." Palmer was in that project as well, Brian was helping with music, and Jackson was the boom mic operator. The film didn't end up getting finished, but Larry and I had quite the creative synergy going there for a while.
Mr. Larry Disco directing "37 Lights," 2004
In between acting in Larry's movie projects, as well as writing and demo-ing new music, I had started editing the STEVE documentary footage at WCTV. I no longer worked there, but the staff allowed me to come in and edit overnight while they were closed. So on my nights off from the plastics factory, I lugged in the 40+ VHS tapes containing 80+ hours of documentary footage of STEVE and began cutting together scenes on the Media 100 nonlinear editing system that technically belonged to the WHS media class in which Nick O. had once been enrolled.
Big thanks to Rich from WHS for letting me invade their classroom and use their workstation. Looking back through my big three-inch STEVE binder, I found a note dated Wednesday, October 13, 2004, recording an 18-hour editing day. This would have meant I continued working even while the students were in class! The editing computer was in the back left corner of the room, but still... It must have been odd to have a 25-year-old dude back there wearing headphones and watching footage of himself and his buddies flicker across the computer monitor. I screened a rough cut of the documentary for the media class about a week after that marathon "day," so perhaps there was a little context for them by that point. I can't quite remember the details, but I'll certainly never forget the hospitality of the folks from WCTV & WHS.
Over the course of a few months, I trimmed the 80+ hours down to about 8 hours of edited scenes and a selection of full-song performances. I approached each day or event on the tapes as one would a scene in a scripted drama. I attempted to give the day's activities a beginning, middle, and end without worrying too much about how they would all fit together. The plan was to save that until later.
My strategy was to hold off on using any interview footage until the end. As Barry Hampe says in the book I mentioned above, "Talk is cheap. Show us what the people did." For Inertia, I relied heavily on typed transcripts for objectivity and organization. This time, I purposefully did not transcribe the interviews, but simply noted the topics that came up. I did this first by hand over 78 pages in an old-fashioned Mead Composition notebook and later typed it all into a Word Document for faster searchability.
One note to myself read, "Try to edit in sequence of events first, telling the story (without using interviews) as it unfolds, flashing back as necessary - like a novel. Then, integrate interviews as needed, shuffling the segments into the most dramatically effective narrative sequence."
By the fall of 2004, there were about 50 edited scenes, which I represented on multicolored index cards—green cards for performances, blue for recording sessions, and pink for non-musical segments. Each card had a scene title (things like "Demo/Gig Discussion," "Kinko's Trip," and "Pittsburg Show") and a duration. I'd lay them out on a big table, arrange and re-arrange them, and add up the durations to a total running time. My goal was 90 minutes.
Larry proved invaluable at this stage. From the HỲP profile on, Larry was a big champion of STEVE. He appreciated the music, but I think most of all he was taken with the creative drive of this group of people who chose to spend their increasingly limited free time making things together. Those two things are essentially what the Finding Rhythm documentary is about, and Larry helped me hone that by giving me 25-pages of legal pad notes on the scene assemblages—everything from "Fuck yes!! I'm so excited about this one I forgot to switch pens!" to "Seems slow, scattered, and self-indulgent."
Bless his heart, even as late as 2005, Larry was indulging the idea of a STEVE book—even going so far as to draft this outline. Some of the suggested chapters are hilarious, such as, "How to Start (and Finish) a Band: A How-To Guide for Musicians in Similar Situations by STEVE" and "e-String, Eleventh Fret: An In-Depth Look at Sean Kammer's Musical Mantra" ("Enough with THAT NOTE!!"). Plus bonus items like a "Pull-out STEVE Poster," "Official STEVE (Five-Sided) Guitar Pick," "Accompanying CD including previously unreleased STEVE music!", and even "Collectible STEVE Trading Cards (Summer 2000 Set; Winter 2000 Set, etc.)!"
The STEVE book never came to pass, but around that time I did end up assembling Unfinished Rhythms, which would have been the "previously unreleased STEVE music" disc. And in 2020, I scanned a bunch of pages and pictures from my big STEVE binder and created this 46-page PDF to accompany the digital version of Unfinished Rhythms.
Between the Unfinished Rhythms booklet, the HỲP articles, and surviving email interview with Sean & Jackson, you can kind of coble together your own "STEVEBook" experience—minus the five-sided guitar pick and trading cards, of course!
Book or no, Larry's enthusiasm for the project aided me in editing the documentary to such a degree that I insisted he take an associate producer credit.
The SVHS master of STEVE: Finding Rhythm is dated December 12, 2004. Inspired by the 2003 I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco by Sam Jones plexifilm DVD Larry had shown me, I edited together the best of deleted scenes into a Bonus Scenes program which had its own flow and structure.
Perhaps inspired by the Wilco band commentary on that disc, Larry was pushing for a full STEVE band commentary for our documentary. I was dubious and declined to make the ask, but Larry called around and wrangled all the guys into gathering in my basement bedroom to watch the film together with him moderating and Brian engineering the recording.
Segment from the STEVE: FINDING RHYTHM band commentary, recorded on April 23, 2005.
As you can hear in the above clip, five years after STEVE had played its final show and the cameras stopped rolling, the final item on the 6/28/2000 "Ideal Shotlist" was captured: the director and the band having a conflict about the documentary. You can also see our collective reaction to that electric moment where "the Kinko's girl" flashes a very interested look at Sean while he's not looking.
This is the tricky thing about documentaries. They don't necessarily reflect the experience of the subjects. Films cannot contain the whole of what happened, only what occurred in front of the camera. Sometimes the camera catches a cute girl making eyes at you when yours are turned away. Sometimes it captures the frustration or disappointment on your face in a moment you thought you were hiding those things well. In my case, the footage sometimes revealed a bit of a heel whose insecurities and perfectionist tendencies were bumming out his bandmates.
After many months of working with all this footage, I was used to seeing myself presented this way and was even excited about how that behavior was captured on camera—not just through what I said and did but also on the faces of the other guys in the group. I played it up in the editing because it allowed for my "character" to have an "arc" in the story.
During the commentary recording, we learned Jackson was surprised that his scheduling challenges were such a point of conflict because, of course, he wasn't around when the segments revealing that were filmed.
Let's remember that, while I had similar challenges (working 78 hour weeks), STEVE ultimately practiced at WCTV while I was on the clock. My busy work schedule actually ended up accommodating practices and even facilitating the documentary itself. There's a moment in the finished film where I hop up during a rehearsal to tend to a WCTV patron as the band plays on. It's funny to see me scramble and my guitar almost fall over. However, there's no scene of Jackson working at his evening and weekend house-painting gig bummed that we're practicing without him. Looking back, I wish I would have made a point of capturing that side of the story.
Ultimately—and especially editing the documentary four years after it was filmed—I had to tell the story using the footage I did have.
STEVE: Finding Rhythm 3-disc DVD/CD combo package
After finishing Finding Rhythm, I felt both proud and embarrassed—proud I'd produced what I believed to be an engaging film and embarrassed by the pattern of spending months and years putting together documentaries about myself and my friends. The vibe I always got was that my friends found it a bit odd as well. Perhaps that's why I was cagy about trying to convene STEVE to watch the documentary together and talk about ourselves.
The generally quiet Logan rarely got a word in edgewise during the commentary session, but he was also the only member of STEVE asked about the documentary itself while it was being filmed. Logan was really the calm, earnest center of STEVE, and he's the heart of Finding Rhythm. In this unused clip from his August 11 2000 interview with Nick O., Logan lays his feelings as bare as his shoulders when talking about the role these sorts of collective creative endeavors play for him amidst the maelstrom transition from teenager to twenty-something.
A cursory glance at dreamingoutloudrecords.com any number of pages on this website would comfort the young man in the tank-top above that these collaborations would, indeed, continue. As recently as September 2019, I filmed a new documentary centering around the musical creativity of this same circle of friends.
Twenty-one years after the "Summer of Steve," I still feel a mixture of pride and embarrassment about this project. It's odd and perhaps more than a little self-indulgent to make autobiographical documentaries. But I've come to embrace it. I feel fortunate to be able to tell these stories. With each new album, movie, or [more recently] podcast, the larger story deepens and expands, and I continue to learn about myself and my friends through these projects.
Perhaps these ventures are sometimes vain, self-aggrandizing, and esoteric. They can also be critical, self-deprecating, revealing, and universal. I’m starting to see these stories as more than just those of myself and my friends. There are tons of creative people like us all over the world toiling in obscurity, who work long hours at their jobs and also make time for their art. Folks who stay up late, get up early to tell their stories—and those of their friends and family. Folks who write and “sing their songs”—both literally and figuratively.
It's just like Logan says in the interview clip, I do it not just to engage my creativity, but also to facilitate these friendships I value so much. Whether we're "making a show" or not, I echo young Logan's parting sentiments.
"I'm sure we got together as a band—not just to make music but to be closer and keep a tight grip on our friendship. Even though all these things are going to go away. We made all these things. We made "the book," we're putting this album together, we have this documentary... But being one as a group of friends is the most important thing that's come out of all of the stuff that we do. Yeah... The most important thing is my friends."