“i’m also in a band called i like trains” — a divorce before marriageBack
The course of popular music in the 20th century was towards the destruction of the idea that musicians are special people; magical, apart, untouchable. But it didn’t work.
The geniuses who do walk among us were gradually confined to smaller and smaller spaces in the classical or jazz worlds where, truly, you or I couldn’t follow without years of study or training, or a touch of the divine.
In their place came a bunch of ordinary people holding much simpler instruments; mysteries of divine genius gave way to more understandable concepts like talent, or raw talent, or by the time we got to the Sex Pistols, just raw; and a determination to destroy the barriers between the audience and the stage. But the one thing punk could not destroy was the mystique; the feeling that the people on the stage are, somehow, different.
It’s something we tackle in the film,” says Matt Hopkins. The film Matt is making, with Ben Lankester, is A Divorce Before Marriage, a film about Leeds band I Like Trains that could be characterised as three years in the life of a band, but is more accurately three years in the lives of some people who are in a band.
“It’s addressed directly by one of the band members,” says Matt, “when they talk about their own favourite bands and how, when they were younger, they always thought that was a full-time job.”
I Like Trains, for a while, were as near to making that dream life happen as it’s possible to be. A deal with a big-enough record label, Beggars Banquet, had catapulted them into the wider musical consciousness and put them close to the music-as-work dream; record industry restructuring woke them up after only one album, and if the band was to keep living, it had to go back to making a living.
“We made some music videos for them, then met them when we made a live DVD at Left Bank in Leeds,” says Ben. “At that point we realised that they were very normal people, and realising that I Like Trains wasn’t their full-time job was a bit of a revelation.
“We hadn’t really thought about it. As a band I Like Trains are definitely a steady household name, so you just have these assumptions.”
They are different while they’re on the stage, obviously. They’re on the stage, where we can see them; where, in fact, we want to see them the most, and where we want to see them all the time, either at a show or in our imagination. We don’t want to see them anywhere else, or imagine them doing anything else, that might diminish the aura.
Musicians do exist in other places, though. They have to. And while they’re in those other places, they might well feel the same as their fans, and want to wish everything but their on-stage existence away.
The film project began by documenting the recording of a new album; the starting point for plenty of rock documentaries. Not many makers of rock docs have seen the value in letting the revelation of real life take over their film, or in letting the recording of those real lives take over their own lives. The album, The Shallows, was released in April 2012, and a tour followed soon after – currently, in March 2015, Ben and Matt are still hard at work on the film.
“We’ve been talking quite a lot while editing the film about what our expectations were,” says Matt. “We went into it quite blind. We filmed the first year of them making the album and going on tour, and without knowing exactly what we were going to do next, we were very committed to doing something that doesn’t try to make a massive thing out of their musical lives, but that tries to understand their lives. It dawned on us while we were making it that it was going to take a lot longer.”
“We had no idea what it was going to end up being,” says Ben. “It was a case of spending time with the band, starting to ask questions, and figuring it out as we went along. If we’d said to the band at the beginning that this was going to be a three-and-a-half year project and it was going to get quite personal, I don’t know whether they would have been up for it.”
The film is personal because I Like Trains are a band and that is why they’re interesting enough to film; but the film is interesting because, removing the focus from the band, it concentrates on the personal. Adapting to life without a record deal, working, turning thirty, raising a family; sometime while the single camera rolled, A Divorce Before Marriage became what Ben and Matt have dubbed an anti-music documentary: a film about people, changing, slowly.
“It’s something you don’t see many films about,” says Matt. “It follows what in many ways people would depict as a very uninteresting time in someone’s life: your early thirties, when you’re starting a family and pitching that against your career and you start to question things. But those questions are extremely interesting.
“We always wanted to capture real moments and actualities, and that required sitting there for hours with the camera rolling and the sound on and just waiting. And there were a few times when that really paid off; when you can see the guys in their own worlds and something interesting unfolds in front of us, like Dave receiving a text message about his son’s first steps.”
“The film couldn’t exist if we’d told it over a year, or even two years,” says Ben. “It needed that three year window into their lives for the story to unfold the way it has. You need that amount of time to see that amount of change. The whole pace of the film we’re trying to create reflects that these things unfold gradually.”
Three-and-a-half years of changes can catch you by surprise when you start to review the time day by day, minute by minute; editing the film has been a process of rediscovering moments in the band members’ lives that Ben and Matt had almost forgotten they’d captured. It has also been a process of discovering changes in themselves.
“The hardest thing about editing has been having to live with decisions we made three years ago,” says Ben. “We hope we’ve progressed as filmmakers in three years, but it’s in the nature of documentary making that if we shot a scene a certain way we’ve got to live with it. We’re looking at footage that’s over three years old and it’s natural to think that we’d do things so differently now. It can be quite scary – to look back at footage and say, what were we thinking?”
A Divorce Before Marriage has felt to Ben and Matt like their analogue to I Like Trains recording an album; a huge project, but one that has had to fit around the work that pays the bills. The gap between creativity and sources of income can make it hard for a filmmaker or a musician to establish an identity, to be known how they’d like to be known.
“We asked a question to them all in interviews,” says Matt. “If somebody in the street asked what you did, what would you say? Most of the time they’d say, ‘I work doing this and this, and I’m also in a band called I Like Trains.’
“It’s interesting because in this country we’re very preoccupied with status; the first thing people ask each other is what they do for a living, as if that defines you. It’s interesting that they would say their paid work is what they do, rather than the band.”
That shifted identity could be traced to the end of the Beggars Banquet record deal, when the support for being in a band all day every day was removed; but that didn’t make I Like Trains any less significant a part of who its members are. There is live concert footage in the film that shows the band and its audience united by the moment and the mystique generated by the right few people with the right few instruments in front of the right crowd of people in the right room: the alchemy of live music; but the mystique is not reduced by the juxtaposition with shots of the band sat behind desks at their jobs. Both things are true, and truth is often so hard to find, that it should have a mystique all of its own.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 22