Brian Parsons is the man behind a film project of epic proportions – rather than simply spend a few months interviewing various DJs and producers about the usual cliched subjects, Brian set off on a mission to explore the nuances and subtleties in electronic music and create a piece of film that would stand the test of time – claiming its rightful place in history as a documentary that really goes beyond the standard formula. And he’s achieved that with In Search Of Sound, which is a masterpiece and truly does electronic music justice in many more ways than one. And MEOKO are very proud to be the first to speak with Brian in-depth about the film, ahead of its premiere – the date of which we will be announcing very soon, so keep checking the site for more information. In the meantime, here’s our chat with Brian..
When did you start the ISOS project and what was the reason for making the film?
First off I’d like to thank you guys and to the people reading. Except for a few interviews, such as one I did with Iceland’s national newspaper, we haven’t started our official PR campaign and at this point, after all these years, I have a lot to say.
The real start of ISOS was at the turn of the century when we moved to London but we went to the UK before that and filmed, it just wasn’t collaborative or global at that point. The digital filmmaking revolution was on, and I said to my mate Joel, let’s make a documentary film about all these artists and labels in the UK we both loved. It was an epiphany really, it wasn’t professional or anything like that, we didn’t have any money or backers, just a grand idea that turned into something much more than the initial idea. We looked through our record collections, contacted a bunch of labels and artists then took a trip to the UK and started filming. After we travelled all around the UK, filmed interviews and loads of other footage and after experiencing so many intimate moments, it became evident that there was more going on than a simple documentary film with a single narrative, something was manifesting itself beyond the initial innocent, perhaps even naive idea. There is no way we could have planned for what happened, for what it became, we would never really return from the journey back to our regular lives, something had fundamentally changed. So, the first reason for making ISOS ended up being the catalyst for what ISOS eventually became, which is a globally collaborative film series. I just had this sense that this era, the start of the next thousand years, needed to be acknowledged somehow in a big way for posterity, and that if something wasn’t done it would be another thousand years before we had another chance.
Did you have a clear vision of how it would be from the outset?
I had an idea but it wasn’t crystal clear until the initial trip, the first stage of the ISOS series if you will. The concept was to gather footage the first part of the new millennium onward and include all the different types of music that was happening. I saw it as a once in history opportunity to do something truly epic with film and music, a way to document not just music, but an era, for posterity, and continue filming and gathering footage indefinitely. It was like, hey this isn’t going to happen for another hundred or even thousand years given it was a new millennium, let’s do something amazing, not just another music documentary about this or that band or genre, but something all encompassing, truly epic. The vision I have is far into the future, it isn’t about Techno or electronic music or EDM per se. I’d like to think that at the end of this century when people are living on Mars or in space or wherever, they will be able to watch the series and come away with a better understanding of this era in general and the music in particular.
I suppose you could look at it as a condensed version of everything of this era, a one stop shop so to speak, so people in the future can watch it and see there was more going on than what they might otherwise get through the filter of time into the mass consciousness. It’s like how people now look at the 60’s and say, right, hippies, or 80’s and say right, yuppies. There was much more going on than what get’s through the filter of time. So if you’re sitting there in your Mars colony you could watch ISOS and get another perspective than what will undoubtedly make it through the filter of time. If they have one thing they could watch to get a sense of things from this era, a better perspective, I’d like to think ISOS is it.
How did you gather up all the footage? How did you make contact with the people who contributed?
There are three main ways we gather footage. The first is, the artists themselves film. This is, in my opinion, a good way to capture the honesty and realness of the artists and other people in and around music and sound related fields. There is a tendency to clam up in front of strangers with cameras, especially if you’re introverted as many artists can be. But, when you just give someone free reign to film however they want, there is a noticeable difference often times, and to me as a documentary filmmaker, this is very welcome. Another method is to have friends of the artists or people who know the artists do the filming. This method also puts the artist at ease and there is less, I don’t know, I guess tenseness is the word? It’s just something you have to see when you’re editing and watching all this footage.
The third way is, we will travel to film, or have someone in our network film. If we were to travel to every location and film every interview ourselves, the costs would be astronomical. I estimated the costs, and with travel, lodging, food, and extras etc. it was astronomical, well north of a million dollars.
How we contact people varies. I know allot of people in the music business and that helps, but mostly it’s fairly straightforward how we contact people to be in the film. Sometimes it’s an email, sometimes it’s a phone call and once in a while it’s through a friend of a friend.
Did you give the contributors any guidelines?
I have a list of basic directions I send, things like making sure the sound level is good and preferably use a mic. This isn’t always possible so we get footage that is kinda rough, but it is authentic. I ask everyone to feel free to be creative, film wherever you want, those kinds of directions. The idea is to give the artists or filmmaker freedom to do what they want, to have fun with it. We’ve gotten some very funny stuff too, which will be peppered throughout the series to lighten the mood or change things up. One thing we ask is for the artists to film an excursion, it can be anything really, but if there had to be a main point, I think this would be it, excursions from the global underground. Using this method we’ve received some very cool footage from all over the world and no two excursions are alike. To me, this is exciting and I’ve never seen anything quite like it as far as music documentaries go.
There is a film Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald did called “Life in a Day” which is similar to ISOS in that it is globally collaborative, however it focuses on regular folks from around the world rather than music artists and music/sound related people, but we were first as far as the global collaboration goes. Since we’re a small indie operation, I think it’s important people know we are the first to have done such a thing, otherwise it would just be ignored or maybe overlooked. It’s significant and people should know it doesn’t take millions of dollars and big connections to do something historical; you just need imagination and determination to see it through.
Was there anyone you wanted involved but couldn’t get?
So far everyone we’ve contacted has agreed to take part in the project and at this point there are far more artists that have agreed to be a part of the series than what’s on our website but they will be added soon enough. Artists and people that actually work at labels are most always very cool people who are open and understanding of what we’re doing.
How long has it taken to make the (first) film from beginning to end?
That’s actually not such an easy question to answer because of the nature of the project. The production started over a decade ago and is on-going, but the first volume after I’d decided what would go into it, was edited in a few months. We did a special showing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York during CMJ, just a test showing really, and after that I radically re-edited the entire first volume. That’s the one that won the London Underground Film Festival. I’m very picky when it comes to editing. Nothing is ever “finished” it seems, there’s always something I would change, some little part, or sound effect. It drives me crazy sometimes, but I know other filmmakers who are the same way. Mind you, when it’s editing time or if I have a deadline I’m pretty fast. So, even though it has been a long time gathering footage, though that’s mainly due to the nature of the project, when it comes time to edit I’d say it’s relatively quick. Mind you, we now have allot of footage in our archive, with more coming in on a regular basis, so it takes a long time just to sort through it all and decide what will go into each volume in the series. Fortunately I have become intimately familiar with the archive and had some advice organizing it from a professional British archivist.
What (is) the most difficult aspect of making ISOS?
That would be keeping track of everything. If you think about it for a minute, you’ll understand the complexity involved. Just to give you an idea, I’ll give an example of the average scenario and you can multiply that by a hundred. My sister, who is also a producer with ISOS, is someone whose taste I trust implicitly, and she’s been a tremendous help. Another person who has helped make things less difficult is Igor our web guru. There is a huge amount of work involved and to be honest, if it was just me doing everything, this project would be next to impossible. It’s people collaborating worldwide, even if just a little, that is the key to this project.
What do you think it says about ‘electronic music’ and the people that make it?
That’s a tough question, I mean, it says so many things, both about the creation and the creator. Music is as diverse and unique as the people who make it. ISOS isn’t about electronic music per se, but it is a major factor, mainly because the state of the art in music and sound technology is usually something electronic. One thing that’s become evident, when hearing from people who make it, is the futility of trying to define music by using genres as a means of categorization. I think a new approach to categorization or rather identification of music, needs to be developed, a terminology that disambiguates, because, as it is, music is thrown into these meaningless ghettoes and it could be a lifetime before someone discovers music they might actually love.
What ISOS says about the artists who create the music is revealed over the course of the series. The careful observer who stays with the series, watches each volume and pays attention, will, I think, come to understand music, and it’s creation, on a deeper level or more completely, and the importance of opening up to new sounds, not limiting one’s self to any one spectrum of sound.
Now, there is music that, in my mind, has a sound that is just a cookie cutter copy of other music. You tend to get that with genres when you have millions of people using similar sounds, software and formulas. Not sure what that says about the individuals who make music like that. It’s a bit like a chef only creating one type of dish with one flavour profile.
At the end of the day ISOS is a grand adventure, and what it says, and what one might learn from it, is, like music, entirely dependent upon the individual. It’s supposed to be fun with some education thrown in for good measure. People learn better when they’re enjoying themselves and not being preached to, at least that’s true for me. One thing is for certain and that is, a tremendous amount of patience and care, not to mention time has gone into this project and whatever people get out of it, I really do hope they enjoy it.
What’s your own personal history with electronic music? How did you get into it etc… ?
I have a fairly long history with electronic music. I’ve been a synthesist, owned synthesizers and produced electronic music. I started off with a number of analogue and digital synths. At first I was in bands then started producing music on my own. I started a label called and then started throwing raves and had a couple clubs. Through it all I’ve been a lover of music, in particular electronic music, especially innovative sounds, but, even though the science behind it all is fascinating, for me it’s about emotion really, more than anything else and how it makes me feel.
My earliest exposure to electronic music, from what I remember, was pretty funny actually. I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old and on a trip to Disney world with my grandparents. There was this guy performing at the plaza where we were eating, think it was the space area? Tomorrow World or whatever it’s called. Anyway, this guy was surrounded by synthesizers and he was doing the most absolutely cool stuff, I mean real spacey, mesmerizing stuff that just left me in a trance. The whole experience stuck with me and I never forgot it. Later on in life I worked at this plant nursery over the Summer to buy my first synth, which at that time were very expensive.It was so hot and miserable working in the greenhouses, but I was so determined to buy a synth and start making sounds, it was all I thought about. I’d go to this music store after school and spend hours with headphones on playing with synths like a Korg Mono/Poly, Roland Juno 106, Jupiter8, JX8P, Polysix, an Arp Odyssey, Oberheim Matrix 12, a Mini Moog. I remember it like it was yesterday, it was wonderful and I would get lost in sounds for hours.
So, I had been creating electronic music for many years before getting into digital filmmaking. It went into this project with some background and understanding. I was intimately familiar with electronic music and passionate about it and this lead to the vision for ISOS. I don’t think I would have thought about it, nor would it have had the characteristics it has, if I had not had a background in electronic music. Also, I think ISOS will appeal to electronic musicians because the interview questions and many of the things we talk a
out, the way they’re talked about, are things electronic musicians and mus
cians in gen
ral think and talk about in their lives. That’s not to say filmmakers have to have a background in the subjects they make films about, but if they do I think it can make for a richer, more in depth film.
Who were you into when you first got into electronic music?
I was into all kinds of stuff but the strongest influence came from synth players like Nick Rhodes, Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian of Japan. Their sounds are so wonderful and atmospheric. Also Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, YMO, Ultravox, Visage, Heaven 17, Human League, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream…There are loads, but all the Duran Duran B-sides, especially songs like Tel Aviv and Sound of Thunder, and all the stuff from Japan…It was like another world to me, very futuristic sounding, mysterious and unlike anything else I’d heard. I also appreciated the older more experimental stuff, like Stockhausen, and John Cage, but again, it’s about emotion to me. I’m looking for an emotive experience and music has the power to do that. Even today I’m always searching and expecting to hear something that affects me on a personal level and there is allot of good stuff out there.
Are there any particular moments or pieces of footage that you were really impressed with or would consider to be a highlight of the doc?
That’s a tough question for me because there are many. It was difficult during post production because there is so much footage that I wanted to include in the first volume, but because of time considerations, and how it worked within the context of the rest of the footage in the film, had to be left for future volumes. Some highlights are Retina.it and their interview and excursion near Mount Vesuvius. They loaded up these comfortable chairs, like you’d have in your living room, and brought them out on this stretch of road on this peninsular with Mt. Vesuvius in the background. In this case, an avant-garde filmmaker Pier Paolo Patti filmed the footage. What these music/sound artists Idrioema did was also fantastic and surreal. They didn’t appear in the footage, rather, they filmed inside an old electric power generating museum in Lisbon, in black and white, and replied to the interview questions via voiceover. Mouse on Mars submitted some interesting cinema verite footage from their HQ and studios in Dusseldorf and were very funny. Ruxpin, an Icelandic artist, filmed beautiful footage from the wilds of Iceland around the geysers. Eysteinn Gudmanson, who filmed the Icelandic group mum also filmed beautiful shots of icebergs and wildlife. Autorotation filmed all the steps in their creative process, from initial idea to finally going to Berry Street studios in downtown London. Andy Carthy from Mr Scruff gave us a very special in depth interview and fantastic tour of his studio and his vintage instruments. Mark Henning’s footage was kinda funny, he included all the outtakes, so, for example, he’d answer a question, mess it up, then start again, he’s so precise and such a perfectionist, I love it. He also took us on an excursion through Berlin, which is good fun. Visually, it’s amazing and random, something you get when people are free to film where and how they want. See, I’ve gone on a bit because there is so much, but hopefully this will give people an idea.
Mind you, all the footage is edited over the course of the series, and so, you become familiar with the characters throughout the series. This makes it more interesting and draws people into the various plots and subplots, and all the different narratives that are woven throughout the course of the series. It’s not easy to hold people’s attention these days, people are used to things like Facebook now and everything is what’s next, what’s next. You’re constantly scrolling and looking for the next thing. So, we give them that, but we also want people to actually learn things, pick them up via osmosis, and all while enjoying themselves while jumping from place to place around the world.
One thing that’s impressive and worth noting, besides the sonic and filmic diversity, is the amount of geographic diversity and locations. The film jumps from one environment in one part of the world to a completely different environment in another part of the world, from the wilderness, to a rooftop in New York or London, then a split second later you’re on the other side of the planet in Tokyo or Mumbai.
It can’t be stressed enough how epic it all is. Another thing worth pointing out is, ISOS encompasses just about every kind of filmmaking style imaginable. It also features footage from dozens of different cameras and filmmakers and the result is unpredictable, something like Exquisite Corpse, except with filmmaking. Each filmmaker and segment is unlike the rest. It’s very eclectic.
What’s your ultimate aim with the film?
To me, ISOS is for posterity, it is something beyond the ordinary. Practically speaking though, we want to show the film in as many places and to as many people as possible and make the film available first as a special collector’s edition Bluray. We have some big plans for the film series and it needs a distributor that can understand it, but at the end of the day we are prepared to release it on our own, and considering this new era of digital filmmaking, that is happening more and more nowadays.
We’re using what’s called a “Long Tail” distribution plan as opposed to a traditional “Big Launch/opening weekend” traditional Hollywood type plan. It allows us to build up a greater amount of interest first, before an official release. We’re also going to use a Hybrid Distribution strategy as opposed to a traditional one. This is something developed by a film consultant, Peter Broderick, and will allow us to maximize distribution worldwide without, for example, one distribution company having the rights for twenty plus years.
Is there an underlying message?
There is an underlying message, actually there is more than one, but I want to leave it up to the viewer to discover. What I can say is, we live in a time where the creation of music and the technology to make it, is phenomenal and the possibilities for music creation are wonderful, but at the end of the day, it’s the creators, not what’s used to create, that is of course key. It’s interesting to see musical equipment once considered, perhaps obsolete, is being re-visited and used to create a new, contemporary sound. One of the many things we focus on is analogue synthesizers and the resurgence of the sound produced by them. That is one of the threads that runs through the series.
We also focus on the cutting edge of sound production, so you’ll see some interesting technology there as well. Just as a small example, how many people have ever heard of a Notron? You’ll see the first one ever made in ISOS, and that’s just one small example of we take it to. It’s well rounded I think as far as music/sound technology, we don’t paint ourselves into a corner and focus on any one aspect of music, like only electronic music, or even only music period. We focus on anything and everything sound, with music being a major, perhaps the most important aspect of sound. But we also focus on other aspect of sound, such as Cymatics, and all of this will come out in future volumes of the series. The music though especially is independent, non-corporate, underground music. There needs to be awareness of this and I hope ISOS can be a light that shines on it for the world to see.
What kind of reaction are you hoping for from your audience?
It would be nice if the audience appreciates all the effort that went in to making it and just enjoy watching. I remember reading somewhere that, during the screening of 2001 someone, I believe it was Rock Hudson, stood up in the middle of the film and walked down the aisle saying “could somebody tell me what the hell this film is about!” Something like that would be amazing, but when it’s all said and done, it’d be nice to have some recognition to what we’ve done. Maybe some media or press people can help with that.
How would you describe the film, in simple terms?
A visually interesting film that is eclectic in style, substance and sound, featuring a tremendous variety of music artists, record labels, people and places, with excursions from all around the world.
What would you say is its biggest selling point/most unique feature?
I’d say the music artists that are featured, the global collaboration, the fact that dozens of filmmakers are involved and also the look and feel of it. It’s the first of its kind.
When did you get to the point where you decided the time was right to collate all your footage and put the first volume of the film out?
(laughs) Well, it was just about damn time, that’s all. I’d thought about releasing the first volume a few years back but I felt something was missing, it just wasn’t ready. Since ISOS is an on-going effort and we’re continuously adding new artists and footage, there really is no “ending” so to speak, so putting a volume together is a matter of editing. As far as ISOS being finished, I don’t think about it like that or in that way, it’s a journey, not a destination. Except for a few people close to the project, I’ve never really explained things to anyone the way I have in this interview, it’s all been a bit mysterious and quiet really. I haven’t sought any big publicity for it or contacted media yet. It’s more like a process of osmosis, and after a few edits, some showings, then re-edits and aside from some minor changes we’re going to make for the Bluray, the first volume is ready.
How do you feel about the current growth of electronic music?
I would have thought EDM, for example, would have been on mainstream radio years ago, and even now it’s not, not really, but I actually think now that might have been a good thing. By keeping it underground and out of the mainstream all these years, it’s made it stronger and more apt to last. It still has a strong underground component. Kraftwerk, for example, is not a known quantity among the average American.
What is exciting to me is how spread out it has become, all the variety, it’s truly amazing. When I think about the times I used to walk into music stores and ask about synthesizers and the sales guys would say something like “why do you want a synthesizer, that’s just a passing trend, what you need is a guitar” (this actually happened) or there was a sort of hostility towards the subject of “all this damn electronic music” and synths in particular, it’s hard to imagine now that was not that long ago.
Also, the fact that what used to cost at least half a million dollars or more, you can now have in a corner of your bedroom for the price of a computer, some software and a synth/keyboard controller. I remember drooling over the Fairlight which used to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars, but now you can have a setup with more power and more control for less than a grand. Now, Fairlights and other instruments are back in vogue, with artists like Com Truise for example, and being used to make completely new sounding music. It’s just wonderful and I hope people keep looking for ways to create new sounds and make new music with the vintage gear. There is no reason not to because all that can be said and all that can be done with that gear was not all said and done when it came out, because most people didn’t have access to it. So you have this situation where alot of people are getting into the older new stuff and making new music and that is awesome, but you also have completely new kinds of music and sound instruments and equipment, and that is exciting too.
What’s the next step? Where can people see the film?
We’re creating a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for Bluray production, PR and other things. We have thousands of fans and alot of interest but a PR campaign letting the press and media know about it, I think will help take things to the next level. We’re planning some showing too and will show at some more film festivals.
Words by Marcus Barnes