Entertainment

'They Wanted to Destroy the Film’ – Inside a New Documentary About the KLF

We caught up with director Paul Duane to talk about the most notorious artists in British music building a pyramid from the ashes of 35,000 people.
January 18, 2021, 10:12am
Bill Drummond Welcome To The Dark Ages documentary
Photo: Welcome To The Dark Ages

In August of 1994, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty – AKA The KLF, the K Foundation, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMs – burned a million pounds of cash in an old boat house on a remote Scottish island, and they haven’t heard the end of it since.

As was often the case with Drummond and Cauty – who, as The KLF, were one of the biggest British acts of the 1990s, and at one point the biggest-selling singles act in the world – the performance provoked more questions than it was able to answer, with most responding either in shock, anger or disbelief. The duo then pledged to dissolve the K Foundation and refrain from talking about it in public for 23 years.

In 2017 (exactly 23 years later), Drummond and Cauty drove an ice cream van through the streets of Toxteth, Liverpool. Kicking off a three-day event titled “Welcome to the Dark Ages”, it heralded the return of their creative partnership – only, they were no longer a pop group, they were undertakers. Their plan? To build a monument called “the People’s Pyramid” made of hand-fired bricks, each containing 23 grams of someone’s cremation ashes.

Set to reach 23 feet in height, contain around 34,952 bricks in total and sit on a TBC plot of land with a 1,000-year lease, the Pyramid could take over 200 years to complete. It’s a mammoth project, the process of which has been captured in Welcome to the Dark Ages, a documentary directed by Paul Duane.

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Speaking to everyone from the brick makers to the funeral directors, whose willingness to experiment turned the People’s Pyramid from a concept into a reality, Welcome to the Dark Ages is a strange and affecting tale of creative collaboration. In one sense it’s a pretty straightforward film about how the Pyramid came to be, but it also proposes a lot of questions about the nature of community and legacy. In classic fashion, Drummond and Cauty agreed to participate in this film about their new project, then changed their minds on day two of shooting.

I caught up with Paul to chat about death, “Mumufication” and working with two of the most notorious artists in British music history on a documentary that very nearly didn’t see the light of day.

VICE: When did you start working on this documentary? I assume it was pre-pandemic, but it feels fitting that with everything going on right now, one of the first big music documentaries of 2021 would be, at its core, a meditation on death and connectivity.
Paul Duane:
That’s definitely part of the story. I’d been working with Bill [Drummond] on a different documentary called Best Before Death, specifically about his art, and the understanding was it wasn’t going to have anything to do with The KLF or The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Bill and Jimmy [Cauty] get a lot of requests to do stuff about that time, and they say no to everything. But I was making this documentary with Bill, which was filmed over about six years, and there was a hiatus period in the middle when Bill took a year off from his art to do the 23-year anniversary of The KLF.

I went along as a punter to the “Welcome to the Dark Ages” event in Liverpool, where they announced they were no longer musicians, they were undertakers. Afterwards, I persuaded them to let me embark on making a film about The People’s Pyramid. The initial “yes” that I got turned into a kind of “mmm, maybe” and then, on day two of filming, into “we don’t want to be in the film”. And that continued right to the very end. When we finished the film, Jimmy said, “I don’t hate it,” and Bill said, “I wish this film had never been made,” and then there was a two-year conversation about whether we could release it. 

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What you’ve mentioned there was kind of the lynchpin of it. Sometime in April or May last year, I emailed them saying, “Look, the world is going through an extraordinary awful time of death, pestilence, sadness. People can’t mourn. You can’t go to a funeral the way you used to be able to; people are having funerals over Zoom. The People’s Pyramid, to me, becomes even more important during this time. Please reconsider your feelings about releasing the film, because it needs to be seen by more people right now,” and they kind of took my point.

Did they say why they weren’t into it initially?
They’re both very much in control of their own story. They always have been. The KLF owned their own publishing, they made their videos themselves, Jimmy and his brother Simon built the sets and the props. It was a very small team of people all working together to create one thing that they could be proud of, and that they controlled every aspect of. They also don’t really like being the faces of The KLF. If you look at the videos they made, they always wore hoods, Bill and Jimmy were always in the background, the focus was on other people. Being foregrounded doesn’t feel comfortable to them. 

Plus, they’re perfectionists, and I made this film very quickly – within a year – because that was the condition of the money I got, which was a very small amount from the Irish Arts Council. But I think the fact they’ve put their music on streaming services now shows that they’re loosening up a little bit in their feelings about their work and its relationship to the world. I did feel a bit pissed off when the guys were telling me they wanted to destroy the film – I had this conversation with Jimmy and he said, “Why not? We destroy all our work all the time!” and I said, “Yeah, but not because somebody told you to!” [laughs]. So the journey from that to getting it out into the world feels like a bit of a triumph.

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What was it like filming with them? 
I turned up on the first day of the shoot, absolutely amazed at how willing Bill and Jimmy were to do stuff. We got to film them setting fire to things, which, given their history, is a powerful image! We had Jimmy with his little flamethrower, lighting the kiln where they were going to make all these bricks. Then they started talking about footage of the first time they came to the brickworks to make the million pound brick, and said I could use it in the film. I came away at the end of the first day like, ‘Wow, these guys, their reputation is that they’re so difficult to work with, but they’re amazing!’

Then day two I showed up and Bill said, “Paul, do you mind if we have a word? We’ve decided not to be in the film.” Then I had to think how to make it without them. That’s when we started filming Jim, who runs the brickworks, and all that kind of stuff. So the whole thing became about the circle of strange, interesting, wonderful, eccentric, creative people that surround them.

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Photo: 'Welcome To The Dark Ages'

Meanwhile, Bill and Jimmy were sitting in the car laughing their heads off. And when I came over to ask them what they were laughing about, they said they were going to release the complete KLF box set, but what they were going to do is take all their masters tapes, shred them, mix them in with clay, make like 400 bricks, and sell the bricks to fans as “The Ultimate KLF Box Set”. Which is one of the reasons I was so gobsmacked when the music all became available again! I was like, ‘OK, the brick plan is dead then’ [laughs].

That kind of stuff would happen all the time. I’d be off filming and they were constantly discussing ideas about what they were going to do next, and whatever that was would change constantly. We managed to get them both into the film on the first day and the last day. Those were the only times they cooperated with us, which is why there’s a credit at the start of the film that says “made with the toleration but not the participation of The JAMs” [laughs].

That kind of compliments the whole concept of the People’s Pyramid more, to focus on the dissolving of the barrier between what people think of as “high concept art” and the very tactile practice through which it comes to be. 
Yeah! Bill’s thing all along was that he wanted to make a 7-inch single that was also art. I think they brought that anti-snobbery attitude that everything they do has to be accessible to everybody, but they also don’t talk down or try to demystify anything. They just say, “This is what we’re doing, are you in or out?” There’s something really lovely and satisfying about the fact they go to people with these mad, visionary ideas and present them in a “here we are” kind of way, and people just say “OK, we’ll do that.” I think it empowers people.

On one level, this is a pretty straightforward documentary about the process behind The People’s Pyramid, but it also questions a lot of other things. What will the business of death look like in the future? How will attitudes towards it change over time? There’s lots in there about the nature of legacy and remembrance. All of which apply to The KLF as a group just as much as individuals. What would you say you wanted to get across with the film?
It sounds awful, but I just wanted to sell The People’s Pyramid. The “Welcome to the Dark Ages” event blew my mind. It was the strangest, most visionary, most ambitious thing – I expected to read lots of stuff about it in the UK press, but there was nothing. Everybody covered the launch of the guys arriving in the ice cream van, but nobody talked about the pyramid. Their PR guy had told them the press were coming for day one, so they couldn’t make their big announcement on day three because no one would pay attention – and he was right. I said, “Look, I believe this People’s Pyramid project is amazing, visionary, beautiful. I find it very moving. Can I make a film for people to hear about it and become a part of it?” And I think that’s why they said yes. 

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This could be you, pressed into a 'Brick of Mu' / Photo: 'Welcome To The Dark Ages'

There are a lot of different interpretations vocalised throughout. There are fans who take it really earnestly, and fans who think paying £100 for a brick is a piss take. There’s a guy who makes a comparison to how being hung, drawn and quartered used to be the worst form of punishment, and a family who are thrilled to be the first full family in the pyramid. The documentary begins in a dark, dystopian manner, but ends on quite a sentimental, human note. Could you tell me a bit about people’s reactions to The People’s Pyramid based on your experience filming? 
It’s a hard thing to put into words. A lot of it is imagination and willpower and suspension of disbelief. This thing is supposed to be a pyramid of 23 feet, 34,000 bricks. It’s an act of faith. And I think people buying into it is almost performing a magical act; they’re imagining a future that doesn’t exist and attempting to bring it into existence through sheer force of will. In the way that Alan Moore or somebody talks about magic, it’s a similar thing. It’s a visionary project. They still haven’t even found a permanent site for it, as far as I know – that’s got to be found by 2023. There’s a lot of questions still, and it’s about people believing, I think.

What was the vibe like when that first brick was laid?
The problem with being a documentary maker is you get access to all these extraordinary moments and places and people, and a lot of the time you’re too preoccupied with not fucking it up to enjoy it. You’re just working. Even so, it felt like a very powerful moment – particularly when Jimmy brought out his brother’s brick. Simon [Cauty] had been a key element of The JAMs and The KLF, and he was very… well, he was his brother. That was a moving moment. I think there’s a misconception about Bill and Jimmy that they’re in some way pranksters or tricksters, when actually there’s a core of real emotion and heart to what they’re doing. Jimmy’s brother being the very first brick in the Pyramid is a testament to that. It’s not a prank, or a scheme. It has meaning.

The laying of the first brick was kind of an in-group thing. All the people who knew about it were already people who were a part of the counterculture in Liverpool; people who had been to the Welcome to the Dark Ages event. There was a sense of it being quite an insular bunch, but that seems to be changing slightly. Bill and Jimmy wanted [the pyramid] to be something that’s open to everybody, not just something for old ex-KLF fans. There’s a real problem if it’s all guys in their fifties with big collections of KLF remixes on vinyl who are getting themselves into The People’s Pyramid, because that’s not what it’s for. Obviously it’s on hiatus now because of COVID, but it’ll hopefully grow and change as it gets bigger.

Indeed – why not press a bit of yourself into a brick!
It’s an interesting Memento Mori as well, because you have to keep it. People all over the world have these bricks on their mantle pieces that are kind of like reminders of death, and in a way I think that’s a very positive thing. Not in a morbid way, but it’s a reminder that you only have a limited amount of time and you’ve got to do what you can, because one of these days you’ll be 23g of ashes in a brick in a pyramid in Liverpool.

Stream Best Before Death here and Welcome To The Dark Ages here. Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulduanefilm.

Learn more about Mumufication here.

@emmaggarland