As far as I know, Total Slacker is the only band to have a personal VHS videographer. Their buddy, John Kelley, lugs around a chunky '97 Panasonic VHS camcorder to film them at shows and parties, and in doing so has started (or returned to) an artistic movement that rides the rails of DIY aesthetics and home-recording. I caught up with the group in Williamsburg's McCarren Park, and we discussed the mysterious relationship between John and the group, the merits of VHS vs. the latest film technology, and they even revealed a few titles from their Secret VHS Collection.
Did you meet John in your search for a VHS videographer, or is he just a friend you asked to film you?
Tucker Rountree: John Kelley came into our circumference very mysteriously. To this day I cannot talk, nor do I have the liberty of disclosing, the data as to how he came into being. But what I can disclose is that, as soon as John and us all started hanging out, we always had this idea that we wanted to document things. And documenting not so much for the idea that oh, cool, I've got Polaroid and film photos of all my friends on my wall, but for the idea of posterity. And for capturing weird people in weird circumstances at weird times.
How did you come about your camcorder?
Tucker: Last year I had a couple of days off after our first tour, and I was hanging out in Salt Lake City with my old friend Johnny, and my dad … who is also named Johnny. Anyway, we're at the DI. It's a very special Mormon thrift store. They have two VHS camcorders there for five dollars each. I bring them up to the cash register and this girl's chewing gum, and she's like "what do you want these things for". And I was like, “well, you see, I'm going to stick it in your window and tape you at night.”
Emily Jane: Oh, creepy…
Why VHS? Were you inspired because you happened upon the cameras at the thrift store, or did your fascination with the medium precede this event?
Tucker: For me, the VHS is a signifier of the cardinal era of the end of the 1900s and the technology that was applicable to that time. And there was something more magical about real analog technology vs. iphones and laptops. All analog formats seem much more real, grainy, and touchable. And they're goofy looking.
John: The tangibility is a big part of it. I remember when I got my first digital camera, I was in 6th grade and it was the size of a brick and could hold like ten pictures. As soon as I started using it, I felt less attached to the pictures I was taking. I don't have any of those pictures, I didn't save them. I put them on the family computer, but I don't know what happened to them. Sometimes I still take digital pictures, but they just go in my hard drive and I never see them again. But all the film pictures I've ever taken I've saved, I physically have them in boxes, and around.
Tucker: Yeah, he's taken a million photos, all on analog cameras. He has this huge collection of real photos. Oh! And I want to mention one of the key things that really inspired me personally to want to document things on video: when I was like six or seven, on one of the weekends my dad had me on visitation rights before my mom moved away from Salt Lake, he decided to go on an adventure all around the city and he filmed it on a camcorder, and it was a special thing. I still have the tape, actually. But I never bring it out. It's secret.
All analog formats seem much more real, grainy, and touchable. And they're goofy looking.
That reminds me — do you have a secret VHS collection like your song suggests?
Tucker: Oh yeah.
Would you be able disclose a couple titles?
Tucker: You should just look at this photo of the secret VHS collection.
Emily: It's actually proudly on display in our living room.
Tucker: Yeah, there are probably 250 that we've collected.
Emily: We just found Hackers and one of the X-Files movies, those are our newest editions.
John [points to a picture of a VHS on his phone]: Check this bad boy out. Gleaming The Cube: when getting even means risking it all. Christian Slater's first movie, and his character's name is Tucker!
Emily: Yeah, John Kelley is notorious for finding bizarre VHS videos for us to watch.
Had you been watching new videos made from VHS cameras before you purchased the camera to make new video? In other words, what inspired you to want to use VHS?
Tucker: I have to cite the pioneer of home recording, which is R. Stevie Moore, of course. We had the pleasure of getting to play with him and hang out with him, but well before that I was fully aware of what he had contributed to that, the idea of … it goes back to librarians and archivists. What they're doing is filing away and organizing real tangible pieces of history. And that's what videography is. When we go on tour, I'm bringing the camcorder, and I'm going to bring 20 blank VHS tapes with me so I can document it. And that's what's really exciting to me.
Emily: But also, we'd already written the song “Secret VHS Collection,” so we already had this trope within our music about VHS tapes, so we knew we wanted to film part of the music video we made for that on VHS.
Tucker: And we did, John shot half of it on VHS.
John: I've been a big fan of these early live show videos of Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Seattle grunge bands. There are some great videos at some small bar in New Jersey, and there's a video of Nirvana playing there
Tucker: Really?! In Jersey? Holy shit, I need to see that.
John: Yeah, there's a bunch of videos from like '88, '89, and there's just one guy in the way back with his VHS camera. That's always inspired me, just that one dude, standing in the back of the bar just rocking out, zooming in, zooming out …
When we go on tour, I'm bringing the camcorder and 20 blank tapes with me so I can document it. That's what's really exciting to me.
So I first met you guys and John when you came upstate to Skidmore College to play a show. I remember John bouncing around with the camcorder like a cinderblock on his shoulder — I think he accidentally whacked my friend in the head with it. Anyway, what happened to the video you took up there?
Tucker: Oh it's amazing. I've got like two hours of golden footage of that trip. We also found a haunted house on the way back.
John: Oh yeah, you shot that! I haven't seen that yet!
Emily: It's gonna take a while to edit all that footage. Although we watched some of it, and everything is so amazing except when we come to the very end of the last song of the set. Watching it, I was getting really excited because it's my favorite song, and Tucker smashed his guitar, and I was thinking, "Yes! Yes!" and then right as the song climaxes, the video just cuts out. I was like, "Noooo! Where did it go? What happened John?"
John: [laughs] battery dead …
Tucker: He met a nice girl and they were talking.
John: Yeah, I got distracted.
Total Slacker starts its North American tour with a Brooklyn send-off show on June 2.