In the imaginative film Flood Tide, Minneapolis-based folk band Dark Dark Dark set sail down the Hudson River on seven large-scale junk sculptures. Created in collaboration with the artist Swoon, the production illustrates the group’s 2008 voyage as they attempt to build their own world with art and music. Layers of documentation, fiction, and mythology are as intertwined as the rafts.
The film features an original score by Dark Dark Dark including a number of onscreen performances. I recently spoke with band members Todd Chandler (the film’s director) and Marshall LaCount about the beauty of collaboration, improvisation and decay.
How did you get involved with Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea?
Chandler: There were two years of raft projects that preceded the Swimming Cities called the Miss Rockaway Armada. That project started in Minneapolis and went down the Mississippi over the course of two summers—from Minneapolis to the Quad Cities, and from the Quad Cities to St. Louis. And on that first summer, Marshall joined up in Minneapolis, and we met that way. Dark Dark Dark kind of grew out of that initially. By the time the Swimming Cities project evolved, we were involved as a band and we’d been asked to do the music for the project.
Looking at your previous projects, it seems like you have a passion for salvaging old material.
Chandler: Yeah, Empire Drive-In is a project that I’ve done three iterations of with Jeff Stark. He and I are collaborators on that project, and there’s a whole bunch of contributing artists as well. It was initially dreamed up as a theater in which to screen an early version of Flood Tide. Steve Dietz is actually a Minneapolis-based curator who does Northern Spark—he was curating a biennal event in California when I met him. He asked me to propose something to him, so I proposed an ideal theater in which to screen Flood Tide. Flood Tide is about creative reuse and the drive-in really held all those things.
In terms of salvaged material, one of the things that really resonates with that is it’s a lot about story and narrative—probably even more than aesthetic. There’s a tendency to be drawn to the sort of decay, and I think what’s really interesting is that all of those pieces of wood, every door, every car, everything has had several lives before it gets to us. At Empire Drive-In, it becomes clear because each of the cars is filled with the previous owner’s stuff. There’s something about the stories that those faces and objects hold that’s interesting to explore.
Where did you draw inspiration for the Flood Tide storyline and narrative?
Chandler: I think the storyline is something that really evolved over time and continued to evolve even after we shot the film. For me, it was about exploring a lot of questions that I had coming out of several years of raft projects. I was thinking a lot about community, isolation, what it means to make your own world in some way, and thinking about loss, privilege. When we started shooting the film, I mapped out sort of a loose map of themes touching on the questions that I was interested in exploring. Then over time, over the years after post-production and writing, that kind of evolved.
How integral was the music for the film? Did the film inspire the music or vice versa?
Chandler: As Dark Dark Dark, we’d been making music on the rafts. We were already a soundtrack to the raft project itself, so it felt very organic. There was never any question about that—we were always going to do the score for the film. There were pieces that were written in advance of the film where we sort of talked about ideas and feelings about the project and about the river.
After there was a sort of rough cut of the film, we got together and sat down with it. Each band member would take a chunk or a scene and write something in response to it. Someone would write a theme and then it would get tossed around and maybe someone else would write a variation on that theme. It was a really collaborative process. The band has so many different influences, but up until that point had done largely song-based [material]. It was a really exciting and interesting challenge to work on a largely instrumental body of work.
Any memorable or quirky stories during the filming process?
Chandler: An example I can think of is this scene of the funeral where Marshall and Jonathan are walking the canoe with Maya’s body out into the water. It was summer, but it wasn’t that warm, and those guys were neck-deep in that river pushing the canoe. We shot that scene for, like, two hours, and I remember them shivering. But the scene really worked and it was really amazing. I see it now, and I just feel so much gratitude that everyone involved was willing to believe in the project, work so hard, and take a bunch of risks.
Also the acting—I think that there is a lot of humor in the film. In some ways you can look at it and it feels very serious, but there are a lot of funny moments. I always encourage people to not be afraid to laugh. I think particularly Marshall and Nona’s chemistry on screen is really funny and naturally themselves. They have this very dry sense of humor that I kind of love.
Is there a specific scene in the film or song on soundtrack that spoke to you?
LaCount: I’m proud of it overall because it captures a band lineup that we weren’t touring—we made it. It’s a departure from the song albums that we released, and it’s a great addition to the list of releases. The favorites change. We got to do some weird things—some of the most improvised songs were the biggest departure for us. Songs like Ghosts. It was great to see the improvised pieces make it on and really being able to respond that way to the images.
Chandler: There are a few different moments. There’s of course the standout moment when Nona is playing with Pauline Oliveros. She’s really amazing and it was so great to work with her and have her and Nona interact in this way. That scene was surprising and really fun.
In terms of music, there’s a moment in the last scene with Sunrise, which is the sort of closing chorus of the film. I really like how that moment refers back to the earlier scene of the film as a reflection. That third chorus with the voices is based largely on actual interviews with people from the project. It’s tweaked, for sure, but a lot of it is based on that. I think the music and the vision with the reflections of those voices work really well together.
A thing that was really important for me about the film was that it’s a work of fiction and it’s a document. It gets at the layers of motivations and responses and reactions that real people were having who were involved in the project. This isn’t just one story. There wasn’t just one perspective. At some point in the end someone says “If you’re asking your parents for money, that’s not a real way,” and then someone else says, “Wait, when did that happen?” Like, is any of this actually happening or is it just these sort of contradicting memories and experiences.
What would you like audiences to take away from the film?
Chandler: As an audience member, what I want to take away from the film, generally, is that I want to walk away with questions. I can’t tell you a specific list of questions, but I hope that the film can open up some ideas like, what does it mean to make your own world? What does it mean to experience loss? What are the different ways in which we deal with it?
Any exciting projects for Dark Dark Dark in the foreseeable future?
LaCount: We have a couple small recording projects in the next year, but we’re still on an extended hiatus and working on other personal projects for a while. I’m excited to get Nona singing for Dark Dark Dark again.
Hear Dark Dark Dark perform live in the Current’s studios in 2012.
Selena Carlson is currently tackling a double major in journalism and music business at Augsburg College. In addition to writing, she is an avid enthusiast of all things banjo; biking; and breakfast for dinner.