Thunderlips

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Jordan Dodson and Sean Wallace, aka THUNDERLIPS, create music videos in a subterranean editing studio in Eden Terrace. They build concepts without consideration for time, effort, budget, or potential success – it’s a work ethic that’s alternately brave, inspiring and insane.

I spent a couple of hours with the duo earlier this week as they prepared for the release of their latest video, LarzRanda’s Lifeguard. I was fascinated, not just by their process, but by their entire philosophy on work, art and creative satisfaction.

LarzRanda – Lifeguard from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.

Here are some snippets from our conversation.

ON THEIR NAME

SEAN: Jordan just one day came up with the words, and we both started laughing, and every time we said it we started laughing more.

JORDAN: and then we looked it up.

S: Yeah, we looked it up, it’s a character from Rocky 3 played by Hulk Hogan, we just liked how it’s really stupid but it also has this kind of gravitas to it, so there’s no real reason other than we found it funny and we liked the sound of it.

J: I’ve added more meaning

G&H: Like a hindsight theory?

J: Yeah, that’s my schtick, adding meaning to everything. The meaning that I’ve added is that we’re kind of like a megaphone in that we work with musicians we think are really great, but they’re not like, famous. No one hears their music, and we could ideally have a megaphone-like effect on their listenership if we make a really cool moving picture thing that goes with their thing. That was the after thought.

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ON THE ORIGIN OF THEIR PARTNERSHIP

S: We found each other through a friend of ours, a mutual friend, a writer called Oliver. Jordan was looking for a cameraman to shoot a short film that Oliver had written, and I’d shot some stuff for him before, and so we met and had a drink, and I was like, “oh I don’t wanna do it, I’m not that interested.”

J: Yeah he turned me down.

S: Jordan also didn’t like my work.

J: Yeah, our producer was like, “you should totally work with this guy,” he had the camera and we needed more than one, and he had the right kind. Oliver had worked with Sean before and liked him, but I’d seen the thing they made together and I thought it wasn’t well done. So I didn’t even want to work with him, and then I asked him anyway and he turned me down. Which makes it seem even more ridiculous that I kept asking, maybe because he turned me down.

The Leers – I Can’t Cope from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.

ON WORKING TOGETHER

S: We made some okay things apart, music video-wise, but for the most part they were terrible, but the first things we made together were so good. So there was something there that made our work much better, and I still think it’s the same. Sometimes we’ve done THUNDERLIPS videos and they’re so intense – the whole process can be draining, you know, because we want to make these things the best they can be – and I think afterward maybe I should do something on my own, just relax and take it easy. But then I come up with an idea and very early in the process I’m like, “no, this should be THUNDERLIPS.” I want to know what Jordan thinks about it and what he would do to make it better.

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J: We have different strengths when we start working on a concept, Sean is much more musical than I am, and also more cultured, and so he’ll understand maybe…

S: Pop-cultured.

J: Well yeah pop-cultured.

S: You read a lot more ancient philosophy than I do.

J: That’s true. There’s nothing in that about Madonna. So he’ll understand the tradition the musician is working in and the style of it, and will usually suggest some way of matching that style with another style. I go looking for meaning in everything, I listen to the lyrics and that’s where I come at it from, and it’s remarkable, but we often end up coming to the same conclusions from these different perspectives. Even when that doesn’t happen, we clash in a productive way. I’m like “well the song’s about this…” and he’s like “but this is the vibe of it.” I think it’s too easy to gravitate entirely in one or the other direction, because the viewer is going to be experiencing both things at once.

S: I suppose another way in which we work well, and maybe why we work well, is that we’re really good friends. We hang out. Two years ago we went to India together and rode motorbikes for a month. I think that’s really important.

J: Yeah, I love play as a model for creative work, and obviously you want to do it with your buddies. It’s got to be like that, it just so happens that it makes it easy and also makes the work good.

G&H: But there’s so much advice out there about not working with friends or loved ones.

J: Yeah but those people are unhappy and they’re assholes…

S: I mean money and friends can get tricky, so maybe that’s what they mean, but work is great with friends. Jordan will just flat out refuse to do corporate work without friends.

Doprah – Stranger People from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.

ON THE PROCESS

S: It starts where we get sent a song, that’s the first stage.

J: And listening to it, second stage.

S: Sometimes one of us will discover a song, I listen to a lot of music, Jordan listens to a lot of music, so sometimes or maybe even more often than not it starts with one of us coming to the other and saying, “oh we we should do a video for this, this is the idea I’ve got so far.” We pitch each other a thing.

ON LIFEGUARD

S: We got the song and we listened to it and I liked it, but Jordan has a relationship with Randa that probably goes a little bit further back, so traditionally the Randa ideas have all been Jordan’s. For Lifeguard I thought I’d leave it in his hands, and he came to me with quite a solid narrative.

J: It was in the song, I sort of followed the song and made it more complete because if you go down the road of literally translating lyrics into pictures you find yourself locked in. In this case I was flipping the story a little bit. There’s a very clear story and that’s always hard, we’ve always struggled in that situation, so I thought, what if Randa’s telling the story the way he sees it, but we show it from a more objective perspective where he’s not actually being honest at all? That was the spark. He’s telling the story, but it’s a lie and there’s something more sinister going on…

LarzRanda – Lifeguard from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo

J: It’s like an early 90’s American teen movie, and so we got to play with the appropriate toys. This is geeky stuff, but we used a split diopter which is a special filter that makes one half of the frame focus in one place, in the background, and the other focus in the foreground. So you can have a character really far away and a character right next to the lens. We did that, and we just got to play as if we were John Hughes, but it’s kind of slicker than a John Hughes film – we had a big crane and stuff like that.

S: Was that our biggest in terms of crew? It felt pretty big at the time.

J: It was pretty huge.

S: The night shoots at the pool, there were a lot of people there. That’s cool, that’s always a really nice feeling, that these people all just want to be part of a cool thing, and hopefully we can make the shoot cool, fun, and also do them justice by making a really cool video. We had to cast it, because the performance of whoever was going play opposite Mainard was so important that we saw a lot of…

J: A lot of casting

S: Yeah, it was almost like we were making a movie.

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ON THEIR OTHER VIDEOS

G&H: Do you have favourites of your own videos?

S: Oh yeah, for sure.

J: Probably Perfect Hair Forever, we made all of these different GIFs as if we hadn’t made them – as if they had just been dug up from around the internet, from all kinds of different sources, and we did it in character. Then there was this whole other layer of abstraction where we had to put them together in a character, a teenage girl who’s trying to sum up her first relationship in GIFs that she’s gathered from these different sources. So we used like, 13 different cameras, and then made GIFs out of them, but we used different GIF generators as well, some of them even have watermarks on them. But again I’m all about meaning and one of the things that I love about that video is the story that it tells, which I’m sure is completely opaque to pretty much everyone that watches it. So I guess I kind have mixed feelings about it in a way. Do you have a favourite Sean? I mean Glare, I fucking love Glare, obviously. Glare is incredible.

G&H: Did you shoot that in Australia?

J: Yeah we went and camped out in the desert for 10 days.

S: It was the only place flat enough in our part of the world. For me every video has really great memories and I think that goes back to the way in which we go about a video. For example the Heroes for Sale video, which is kind of the first Thunderlips video, we actually had no money, the band gave us I think $1000…

J: $600.

S: …And then we put this set up, which was the band stage on a moveable platform on my Land Rover which has a moveable top, and we drove around for like 4 days in the summer to all these cool different locations and we just had the best time. So I look back at the video and regardless of what I think it’s like as a video, it’s such a good time, maybe that’s my favourite. Each video does have really great memories. You know Glare was really hard, mentally, but every other I wouldn’t think, “oh that was kind of stressful making that” – they’re all great times. Even Glare, it was kind of a great time.

Heroes for Sale – Jim Morrison from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.

G&H: Why was it hard mentally?

J: There’s a 20 minute documentary about us doing it, it’s very unpleasant because you have to watch me running around the desert in my undies, but you get a sense of the trauma of making that. We had a great time making the GIF one, over months and months and months, whenever we could get our hands on a new camera, we had this huge list of GIFS we wanted to do, you know, many more than we ended up actually doing, and many we did that aren’t in the thing. Anyway, it was a great time. That totally comes into it, which is why Glare is like, really painful.

Sheep, Dog & Wolf – Glare from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.

ON STRESS

S: Jordan doesn’t get stressed, it’s not a feeling he experiences.

J: I’ve never had the feeling, but I do get headaches during stressful times and I’m thinking they’re related. The four videos we made at once [earlier this year] were expensive, because we want to make something good and we don’t care if it’s cheap or not, you know, some of them are, some of them aren’t. We’d gone way over budget with a bunch of things and needed to make some money, so while we were in post we also took the job of being the creative directors of X Factor and we had to come up with, you know, ten different stage performances every week, while also doing… and I got some headaches.

S: I think in times of stress you just have to look at your life, your lifestyle, and in terms of what we do to make money, it’s cool, we hang out together here a lot, we go and muck around with cars, we drink heaps of really really good beer, and one of Jordan’s favourite things he likes to say is “we have the best life.”

J: We do.

S: And so I think in a relative sense whenever I get stressed I just look around and that makes me feel better.

The Sun Hates Me from Candlelit Pictures on Vimeo.

ON CLIENT WORK VS. MUSIC VIDEOS

S: Neither of us would ever want to release anything that’s sub par. We do corporate work and we make commercials, and at the end of the day the client is king, and we’ll always argue up to a point, but we do have to give in eventually. With a music video we could never do that, so we will get stressed if we think that it’s not going to be that good – and [the artist] wants to release it now…

J: We get a lot of grief from band managers.

G&H: trying to rush it?

J: Yeah because they just need a thing. Music videos are a really sad cornered little art form in the sense that they’re considered marketing collateral – like headshots, or t-shirts – so they’re this necessary fodder for the machine. We obviously don’t see them that way and so we get into these… even with the artists sometimes, who are like, “just give us a video, this is ridiculous how long it’s taking,” or whatever. We’re getting better and better at saying up front, we’re here to make something really good and sometimes what we think is going to work doesn’t work, and sometimes we have to reshoot something and we’ve run out of money, so we have to wait until we make another McDonald’s commercial to get another camera to pick up those last few shots. A lot of artists are really cool about it but band managers less so.

ON THE FUTURE

S: The thing I’ve come to realise after making now, what is it, eight videos, is that this is the best it’s going to be… maybe. In terms of creative satisfaction – small artists, no money, very little pressure, but complete creative control. When THUNDERLIPS started making commercials I was really excited, you know, because there’s a lot of money involved in terms of being able to get really good gear and heaps of crew. So there’s no headaches there, but the creative satisfaction’s not really the same. You’ve got the agency and the client, and I think that if we want to make videos for huge artists that we respect, maybe it will be a little bit like that. Where you have these huge labels and people breathing down your neck about deadlines and ways in which we can and cannot show the artist. So I don’t know what that means then in terms of my personal aspirations for Thunderlips, obviously we want to take it as far as we can, but I’m just really enjoying what we’re doing now, working with these great NZ artists.

J: Yeah but if the music wasn’t great it would be tedious.

S: Or we wouldn’t do it. I mean that’s one of the things, a song has to be amazing, there’s never been an incredible music video for an average song. There’s been good music videos for average songs, but the two can only exist together.

G&H: If you could work with anyone who it be?

S: We’d really like to make something for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and they’re kind of an NZ act as well. Tom Scott who does Homebrew and @peace. But if it was like a big… do you know Justice? They’re a French duo.

J: DJs

S: No they’re producers.

J: They make electronic music.

S: Yeah they make electronic music, they’re kind of like Daft Punk, because they’re a French duo, but it’s like Daft Punk at the beginning of their career. Because you know how Daft Punk just went a bit shit? I mean I hate their new, everything they’ve made.

J: Their new everything. I’d love to make a video for Earl Sweatshirt. But definitely UMO, that’s going to be my project.

Randa – Cosby Kid from THUNDERLIPS on Vimeo.