Punk Director Hits the Road: Interview with James June Schneider on New Rock-Doc

James June Schneider is director with such deep punk “cred” or roots that run deep from the punk scene in Chile to Washington D.C. The punk director hit the road is now on tour for screenings of his new film, Punk the Capital, that follows the origins of punk in the capital through bands and acts like Minor Threat and Bad Brains.

In an email done via email, Schneider talked about several topics from punk today to his work on one of his prior projects, La banda que buscó el sonido debajo, a documentary that follows Pánico, the Franco-Chilean band that is comprised of children of Chilean exiles who escaped the Pinochet dictatorship.

Poster by Oliver Munday
Movie flyer for Punk the Capital

His work sticks to the true nature of punk, of voicing anger and frustration with injustice and the status quo. He actually began his previous documentary as Sebastián Piñera, the Chilean president who just mobilized 20,000 troops and called curfew after condemning protests as criminals and terrorists, was elected into power.

Now his work hits the capital of the U.S.A.

He is on tour attending screenings of the documentary across Europe and the U.S. The film focuses on the late 70’s to early 80’s, highlighting the chaotic intensity that described the punk scene that burned out almost as soon as it erupted.

Tonight he is in Tuscon, AZ, and hits El Paso, TX tomorrow. More dates are listed below.

1. Do you have any connection to D.C. specifically, or when and how did the idea for a film on the punk scene from D.C. come into mind? 

After I finished making a film called Blue is Beautiful about a D.C. band called The Make Up, I saw more and more of my friend Paul Bishow’s films and all the bands that he had filmed in Super-8 back in the early days of D.C. punk circa 1979, stuff that nobody had seen. At that point there was no film about D.C. punk so it seemed like we should do it! For me, it is very personal of course, having grown up in D.C. in the punk community, but it’s also a history that is so rich, complex and generous in musical innovation and constructive concepts.

2. Can you tell me a little bit about your affinity or interest in punk music? You also directed La Banda que Busco el Sonido Debajo, so it seemed like to me that punk music is this vehicle for your storytelling and for reporting on the world; is this the case?

Artistic and political movements and groups have always interested me, but that could also be a one person thing, as it was with the French filmmaker Jean Epstein I did a film about. By looking at humanity through the lenses of different movements, we can really learn about how to approach our times or take on whatever we do with new perspectives.

3. What was the timeline and process for this documentary? 

The initial idea for the film came around the turn of the century but for a variety of reasons we didn’t start doing the interviews until around 2013 and only when I moved back to D.C. from abroad could it really move along. The process did take longer than it might of if the film itself was our only goal but our mission was also to create a record of different people’s experience in the scene and to preserve archival material as much as possible. At one point, we worked with the D.C. Public Library to help co-found their D.C. Punk Archive as part of this preservation work we set out to do.

4. Which artists or figures did you particularly like interacting with/showing in your film?

Henry_Rollins_PunktheCapital_
Henry Rollins, a punk icon from Washington D.C., from a clip from the film. 

This is a really intense group of people and really each of these people could have a documentary to themselves. Many of the really good interviews are not in the film just because at one point we scaled down to essentially the bands that started by around 1981, though the film covers until around 1983 in terms of how the scene overall evolved. We also decided to only include people who were there, not outside commentators.

5. What are you hoping this documentary, if you have that about this, will accomplish with the the tour and all? 

This film for me is about a lot of things, but one thing we really tried to do was to transmit what the essence of punk is, with D.C. as the example. I think we succeeded to some degree, people seem to get a lot out the film whether they are into punk / harDCore punk or not and people are bringing their elderly parents or their teenage kids to see the film because it goes beyond just a fan film. So this tour is really meant to reach out to communities we might not via film festivals etc… It’s also really important to us (and in line with the film) to try to get people out and together in a room to talk about some of the ideas behind D.C. punk. It’s been interesting to see how widespread the impact of this community is – for example Beto O’Rourke has talked about how influenced he’s been by D.C. punk, Dischord Records, Fugazi, Minor Threat. We actually invited him to our screening to maybe give him a better idea about what it really is all about, we’re waiting to hear back from his scheduler, perhaps he’ll show up!

6. I also wanted to ask you a bit about your thoughts and opinions on punk. First though, circling back to the documentary La Banda que Busco el Sonido Debajo, how did that project come about, since Pánico is a relatively obscure band, in comparison to other chilean bands like La Ley or even Franco-Chilean musician Ana Tijoux? Has that project come to your mind lately with the protests going on in Chile now? 

Well, for the kind of post Pinochet punk/indie community, Pánico is really important not just in Chile but across Latin America. They had their own label and a DIY ethic early on. I befriended them in France; that’s how that connection happened. Some of the members were children of political exiles so heading up to the north of Chile was really an intense experience for them for a variety of reasons. Now,  I think about the drummer Seb [Sebastián Arce] who grew up hearing the banging of pots and pans at night in protest under Pinochet, how Piñera was elected when we were making the film and how there will surely be in addition to the protests a new musical movement reflecting what’s going on there now.

7. Now about punk in general, the term has so many different meanings to so many different people. What is it to you? Even within the frame of “genre,” it can mean a lot. So what is the genre, how did you come to it?

Punk is now all broken into a hundred sub-genres but to me it’s also like folk music. However rudimentary, it’s always able to hear the real intention coming through it and that touches people. It’s timeless. Sub-genres aside – so I don’t ever see punk fading out any more than any other major musical genre. There are great musicians playing punk but to start, the beauty of it is that it’s all about just doing it, not chops.

8. The famous question, especially since Punk the Capital focuses on bands of a different era (as timeless as they may be), is punk dead? Are there any artists you listen to today? 

Nope, punk’s not dead, for sure, I don’t listen to as much new punk music as I’d like to but a wider variety of music. I listen to a lot of experimental music, love the WNYC show New Sounds and pick up on a lot of awesome sounds through there from all over the world, dreamy Icelandic music, new African fusion…

9. A lot of my questions are predicated on you actually liking punk, which may or may not be the case. But even then music clearly plays an influence in your filmmaking interest. How and when did you start working with film and music? Why? 

The first album I ever bought was by Minor Threat, when I was around 12 and it made perfect sense. I went on to be in some bands but at some point felt like I was most challenged and engrossed by filmmaking. It was sound and image and world building, so I could put those two loves together.

10. Lastly, if you have any comments or anything in general you’d like to say about Punk the Capital, this screening tour, punk, music, or life in general? 

Well our film is a rock doc, with the concerts, anecdotes, great music and all that. But through the ideas that permeated the early D.C. scene, I think is an exploration of what we do with our lives. Do we let the winds blow us or do we set our sails and determine who and what we want to be? It’s hard these days to feel a sense of community that made that kind of thinking easier, so maybe this film provides some food for thought on how we decide to live our lives.

SCREENING SCHEDULE:
October 11 Third Man Records, Detroit, MI
October 12 Communication, Madison, WI
October 13 Real Tinsel, Milwaukee, WI
October 14 Record Bar, Kansas City, MO
October 15 Film Scene, Iowa City, IA
October 16 The Union for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NE
October 17 Denver, CO (TBA)
October 19th Artists Television Access, San Francisco, CA
October 20 Land and Sea, Oakland, CA
October 21 The Regent, Los Angeles, CA
October 23 The Screening Room, Tucson, AZ
October 24 The Alamo Cinema Drafthouse, El Paso / Montecillo, TX
October 26 Phoenix, AZ (TBA)
October 27 The Tannex, Albuquerque, NM
October 28 Circle Cinema, Tulsa, OK
October 30 Asheville, NC
November 9, 10, 11 AFI Silver Theater, Silver Spring, MD
November 15-22 Leeds International Film Festival, UK
November 23 Occii, Amsterdam, Netherlands

By Antonio Villasenor-Baca

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