Music Issue - We Fun: Lights, camera, reaction

Atlanta's rock identity set in stone by We Fun filmmakers

Jessica "Juggz" Reed perched at the front of the stage at the Earl on Saturday, April 5, to give one "final" performance of the infamous trick she likes to call "Pussy Flambé."

Juggz is the vocalist for Atlanta's punk-metal trio Mourdella. But she's better-known for the exotic stunt in which she inserts a container of lighter fluid into her nether regions and shoots out a dazzling flame. She's retiring the trick, she says, as a matter of personal safety. That's reason enough to stop, but there's a deeper motivation behind her decision.

The final act was staged at the release party for Mourdella's debut CD, This Kill is Mine. People packed in for the symbolic (and literal) passing of the torch. Reed's mission was to legitimize herself as an artist — to rise above performing her sideshow trick. But sometimes a reputation is hard to shake.

Reed's predicament is a familiar one in Atlanta's underground rock scene, where gaining legitimacy after a history of raunchy stunts has proven to be a major hurdle. Her dilemma mirrors that of the Black Lips, who've attempted to distance themselves from the notoriety they gained performing equally crude antics.

Atlanta has long strived to cultivate its own musical identity, rather than be seen as a waiting room for New York or L.A. And over the last few years, the city has fostered a scene distinctive enough to attract the attention of Nashville filmmakers Matthew Robison and Christopher Dortch. The two are creating a documentary about the city's underground rock scene, titled We Fun: Atlanta, GA Inside/Out. While the film could legitimize things, the initial online clips show the city's bands up to their old bad habits.

Legacy of Debauchery

The bad behavior can be traced back to the summer of 2001, when several rowdy suburbanites, including most of the Black Lips, flocked to a dilapidated house in Home Park. One of those kids was Mark Naumann, owner of Die Slaughterhaus Records, which was named after the crumbling building. The original Die Slaughterhaus was the staging point for dozens of shows and parties.

Virtually everyone from every noteworthy band in Atlanta made appearances at those parties, including now-defunct local groups such as Rabies Babies, Airoes and the Applicators (which was fronted by Jessica Juggz). They all mingled in a haze of dense smoke and layer upon layer of party clutter, broken furniture and empty beer cans. It was a scene dominated by irreverent kids reveling in the spun-out energy of youth, and noisy, artsy, punk-rock abandon.

It wasn't the big bang, but it was an essential step in the evolution of Atlanta's rock scene.

"There had been countless bands in the suburbs," Naumann says. "The kids in the Black Lips were already playing together, and Carbonas were from somewhere on the edge of the city, too, but things were growing stagnant. When we moved into Die Slaughterhaus, it unified everyone ... You could get away with anything there."

It was a dive that brought danger and rock 'n' roll together under one roof. At a show that summer, a sinkhole in the front yard posed a potential threat to anyone who wandered too close. And for a while, a ruptured sewer line in Black Lips guitarist Ben Eberbaugh's bedroom was a star attraction. At one party, a ramped-up kid had to be hog-tied to keep him from driving his car through the living room. There couldn't have been a more appropriate place for the scene to begin.

First impressions

Before they heard stories about Black Lips guitarist Cole Alexander urinating into his own mouth on stage, or his vomit-mouthed make-out sessions with guitarist Ian Saint Pé, Robison and Dortch heard the music.

"I deeply adore the Black Lips," Dortch says. The enthusiasm that creeps into his voice makes it clear that viewing the group as anything other than a legitimate band has never been an issue for him. "There came a point when I discovered a hidden enclave in my record collection and realized that a lot of my favorite bands were from Atlanta."

Dortch, who is director of programming for the Documentary Channel, hatched the idea for the film. At last year's South by Southwest music festival, he convinced Robison – who was in Austin screening his documentary film Silver Jew – to come to a Black Lips show. Robison was sold instantly.

Through the Documentary Channel, Dortch knew Bill Cody, who produced director Tony Gayton's 1987 doc, Athens, GA: Inside/Out. Gayton's film chronicled the scene that placed Athens prominently in alt-rock history.

"I thought, 'Hell! It's in Georgia. It makes an infinite amount of sense to make another film where something interesting is happening 20 years later,'" Dortch explains. "Bill said 'Prove it. Convince me that there is something happening there that's worthy of my time.'"

One mix CD later, Cody was on board as executive producer.

The medium is the message

The early Die Slaughterhaus days showed the first signs of a coherent musical community on the rise. The Black Lips and Deerhunter began touring the country and the world. Snowden, the Selmanaires, the Coathangers, Carbonas and other local bands followed their lead, and the local scene exploded.

As the dust from Atlanta's initial burst into the national spotlight settles, the same bands are working harder than ever, but with seemingly less to prove and a lot to maintain. Talk circulates about the Black Lips starring in a feature-length film about young rock. Deerhunter struggles to crank out its third album while frontman Bradford Cox's solo project, Atlas Sound, looks as if it could become the center of his attention.

But the afterhours hedonism on the home front is still epic. The siren call of drugs and alcohol are so tightly interwoven within the scene that carving a meaningful and compelling narrative through the late-night debauchery is a colossal undertaking.

A first cut of We Fun has yet to be released. But even though it was the music that attracted the filmmakers, the trailer posted on the film's MySpace page focuses on the antics.

Drunken party scenes and incoherent babble embrace the desperate-for-attention behavior that Juggz, the Black Lips and their contemporaries have been attempting to rise above. But the buffoonery plays an important role in uncovering the true personality of Atlanta's rock 'n' roll underground.

When the camera is rolling, the levels of lunacy and debauchery are pushed dangerously into the red. The scenes reflected in We Fun's trailer are real, but when compounded, offer an exaggerated impression.

For Dortch and Robison, gauging which bands to include has been a matter of sticking to a vision.

"We're not making 'Black Lips:' or 'Deerhunter: The Movie' – even though those are the most important bands we've discovered," Dortch says. "We're trying to create as much of a history lesson as we can while staying true to the core of what brought us here. It's about a particular scene and the community within it."

As the groups spend increasingly more time on the road, a new crop of bands such as Mammals and Austell's Coffin Bound, which has already released a 7-inch on Die Slaughterhaus, are sprouting. "Just seeing the Black Lips' shows makes you want to play music," says Mammals guitarist/vocalist Justin Bauman.

Such enthusiasm is exactly what Dortch and Robison hope to convey with We Fun.

"We want 14-year-old kids to see this film and be so excited that they have to go start a band," Robison says. "Like when you hear the saying that the Velvet Underground's first record didn't sell very well, but everyone who bought it went out and started a band ... That's what we want this film to do."

The impact of Athens, GA: Inside/Out still resonates 21 years later. The town is rarely mentioned in print without the reference "home to R.E.M., Pylon and the B-52's." How We Fun will be seen 21 years from now is impossible to say.

Can Bradford Cox be likened to Michael Stipe? The Selmanaires to Pylon? The Coathangers to the B-52's, or the Black Lips to the BBQ Killers? In many ways, yes; but in more ways, no.

Atlanta is a much different city than Athens. The musicians featured in both films are worlds apart, and no Atlanta band approaches the mainstream popularity that R.E.M. and the B-52's did in the '80s. Atlanta's irreverence stands as a polar opposite to the intelligence and college-town vibe of the first film.

It's been much harder for Atlanta to establish its identity, but We Fun offers the chance to put the underground rock scene into focus, and stamp it in time.

For Juggz, the dilemma is ongoing. The Mourdella CD-release show was packed, but as soon as she finished the flamethrower routine, the room emptied out, even though there was another band left to perform.

It was the trick that attracted the crowd, but it was the music that compelled Juggz to do it. "The band's performance trumps the fire," she says, laughing. "I was much more passionate about the music than anything else. I can get over the image of being the fire-pussy girl."

Chad Radford was interviewed by the filmmakers of We Fun.

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